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Malaysia begins unearthing mass grave sites, as Thailand steps up search and rescue

Malaysia has begun to dig up dozens of mass graves near suspected people-smuggling camps, as Thailand announces new naval and air operations. Almost 140 grave sites were found in jungle terrain close to the Thai border.

Malaysian forensic teams began to excavate the 139 suspected burial sites near a cluster of abandoned camps on Tuesday, though only one body was recovered.

A spokesman with the International Organization for Migration, Joe Millman, said the humanitarian group "predicts hundreds more (bodies) will be found in the days to come."

The 28 disused camps are in a remote, mountainous area close to Malaysia's border with Thailand, used as a transit point for migrants and refugees.

Malaysian officials said some buildings, such as a prison-like structure with two pens encased in barbed wire, were still visible.

"These structures were believed to be used as human cages," local police official Mohammad Bahar Alias said.

He estimated the camp could have held up to 300 people, and could have been used as recently as two weeks ago.

Most of those who pass through the region are believed to be members of

Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority,

and poor migrants from Bangladesh.

The most recent findings come after

similar sites were found in Thailand

earlier this month.

Land and sea mission

On Tuesay Thailand announced it had begun air missions to look for any migrants stuck in the Andaman Sea off the country's west coast.

Nations have been criticized for not doing enough to find vessels and people potentially stuck out at sea.

Thailand also said it will open a "floating base" near its maritime border with Myanmar, to help rescue and treat boat migrants.

The United States confirmed it had also launched its own operation off the Malaysian coastline.

The United Nations says it believes around 2,000 migrants are trapped further north in the Bay of Bengal, possibly being held for ransom by people smugglers.

Thailand will be hosting a regional meeting on Friday over the crisis, with activists accusing corrupt authorities of supporting the trade.

Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said police

are investigating the involvement of officials

, particularly those in the Forest Ministry, and that several people have been detained.

At a conference held to discuss the Rohingya's plight in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Tuesday, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for aid to Myanmar to be based on how its Rohingya community, who it sees as illegal, is treated.

"We have a responsibility … to adopt a common position making funding the development of Myanmar conditional on the restoration of citizenship, nationality, and basic human rights to the Rohingya," he said.

The grim discoveries have prompted a crackdown on illegal migration, that culminated in boatloads of people left stranded at sea by wary traffickers earlier this month.

Last week

Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide shelter of up to a year

, while the US said it would settle some of them permanently.

Thousands more are believed to still be trapped at sea.

an/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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