(Rangoon) Burma has arrested around 150 Rohingya suspected of wanting to flee the country, where they are victims of persecution, for Malaysia, a security source told AFP on Friday.

The group of children, women and men was intercepted in Thanbyuzayat (Southeast), said the official who requested anonymity, not being authorized to speak to the press.

“They were hiding in a hilly forest between two villages,” he added, “we started making the arrests yesterday (Thursday) night after receiving information.” He did not specify the reason for the arrests.

According to initial information collected by the police, they had started their journey by boat from Rakhine State (West), with the hope of going to Thailand and then to Malaysia, by road.

An unspecified number of suspected non-Rohingya smugglers have also been arrested and police are looking for 30 others involved, the source said.

Members of the Rohingya Muslim community face travel restrictions inside Burma, where they live in near-apartheid conditions according to human rights groups.

Although settled for generations, most of them have no access to citizenship, health or education, in this predominantly Buddhist country that the army has governed since the coup. from February 1, 2021.

In 2017, a military crackdown prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, with harrowing accounts of murder, rape and arson.

Burma is facing charges of genocide before the highest court of the United Nations following this exodus.

These arrests come a few days after the ruling junta said it was ready to accept from mid-April Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, in a pilot repatriation program.

The project involves “about 1,500 people,” a state newspaper said Friday, citing an official in charge of cross-border issues.

Burma has not “yet received a response” to its proposal, he added, without indicating whether it was from the refugees concerned or from the Bangladeshi authorities.

The returnees will be placed in “a transit camp for a short period” before being distributed among fifteen villages.

“For their safety, we have police stations near the fifteen villages,” he said.

Every year, hundreds of Rohingya attempt a perilous boat trip to Malaysia or Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, who has called the Rohingya identity “imaginary”, was the head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown.