Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian authorities said they have turned back a boat carrying about 200 Muslim Rohingya refugees, including children, that was attempting to enter the country illegally.
The air force said in a statement late Thursday that one of its surveillance aircraft had spotted the boat about 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers) off the northern resort island of Langkawi earlier in the day.
It said two navy vessels intercepted the boat amid concerns that the refugees might bring the coronavirus into the country. The air force said the navy distributed food to the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds before escorting the boat out of the country's waters. It didn't say where the boat was heading or describe the condition of the refugees.
The air force said aerial maritime surveillance will be intensified as part of the country's partial lockdown until April 28 to curb the virus. Malaysia has recorded 5,182 coronavirus infections with 84 deaths. New cases have begun to decline this week.
Authorities have said they will tighten border patrols to prevent undocumented immigrants from possibly spreading the disease. Nearly two weeks ago, 202 Rohingya refugees were arrested after their boat drifted close to shore in Langkawi. There were no details about where they came from, but many Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh have been lured by traffickers to leave to seek a better life elsewhere.
Bangladesh hosts over a million Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar. There are no reported coronavirus infections in the crowded camps, which have been locked down. Bangladeshi officials in recent months have picked up about 1,000 Rohingya in boats or at locations where they planned to board boats.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh's coast guard rescued 382 starving Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, who had been drifting at sea for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia. Officials said the boat attempted to land on Malaysia's coast several times but failed.