YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Four Malaysian navy ships began searching the seas for stranded boat people Thursday in the first official rescue operation since desperate migrants started washing onto Southeast Asia's shores, and the U.S. military gave the first indication it was ready to take a direct role in helping address the crisis.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis are believed to be trapped on boats with little food or water — some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries — and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.
The announcement Thursday by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was the latest in a series of breakthroughs, including an offer by his country and Indonesia to provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children until a more permanent solution is found.
He said he had ordered his navy and coast guard to conduct search-and-rescue efforts for other boats.
"We have to prevent loss of life," he tweeted.
Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said four vessels had been deployed, and three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.
The United States has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering thousands of vulnerable migrants.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press Thursday that the Defense Department "is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously. We are preparing to stand up maritime aviation patrols throughout the region and working with local partners to help with this issue." He provided no further details.
Meanwhile, Myanmar, which earlier hinted it would skip a regional meeting in Thailand next week bringing together representatives of more than a dozen nations to address the crisis, changed course Thursday, saying it would attend.
About half the migrants on the boats are Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing persecution and violence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
"We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," said Zaw Htay, director of the president's office.
The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Myanmar was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya, a term that is not recognized by his government.
Myanmar officials refer to members of the religious minority as "Bengalis," implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
The U.N. says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.
Over the past few years, Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.
Since the crisis stated unfolding three weeks ago, around 3,000 migrants have washed to shore. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.
After pushing back several vessels, Indonesia and Malaysia announced Wednesday they would offer temporary shelter to incoming migrants if the international community helps resettle them within a year.
They said it was a global, not regional, problem.
The United States responded quickly, saying it was prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort organized by the U.N. refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it is willing to take in Rohingya refugees. "As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help," the nation's presidency said in a statement.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visiting Southeast Asia, met Thursday with Myanmar's president, army commander in chief and other officials, raising "deep concern about the thousands of vulnerable migrants stranded at sea," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"He stressed the need for Burma to address the root causes of this migration, including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence facing the Rohingya population in Rakhine State," Harf said, referring to the former name for Myanmar.
Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.