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Nearly 600 rescued in boats off northern Indonesia

Boats carrying almost 600 migrants have arrived in Indonesia, most of those on board being members of Myanmar's Rohingya minority. The group has repeatedly been the victim of religious and ethnic violence.

Authorities said on Sunday that nearly 600 migrants were aboard the boats stranded off Indonesia's Aceh province.

"There are 573 people, 424 men, 98 women and the rest children," said North Aceh police chief Achamdi. "About 50 of them have been brought to the hospital because of weak health."

Steve Hamilton, of the International Organization for Migration in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, said his teams were racing to the sub-district of Seunuddon, where people were coming ashore from the boats.

Four boats in all were found, according to the AP news agency, three of which had apparently been abandoned by smugglers

Attacks on the Rohingya Muslim community by Buddhist mobs have been frequent in the last three years, and have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War. Some 100,000 people have fled in all, according to the Arakan Project monitoring group, which has recorded the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.

Thousands trapped on waves

The project's Chris Lewa said an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Rohingya were being held in large ships in the Malacca Straights and nearby international waters. Crackdowns on trafficking syndicates have stopped them bringing the refugees to land, and some have been at sea for months.

In the past, many Rohingya, as well as Bangladeshis, ended up in Thailand, where they lived in open pens in jungle camps while ransoms were raised from friends and relatives.

Since May 1, police have found two dozen bodies in shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand - apparent victims of the smuggling rings.

rc/msh (AP, Reuters)