A boat carrying up to 150 Rohingya Muslims fleeing a cyclone has sunk off the coast of Myanmar, the UN has said. The incident raises fears the storm could endanger tens of thousands of displaced people along the coast.
The boat sank Monday night after it left Pauktaw township in Rakhine state as the passengers "were travelling to another camp ahead of the cyclone," a spokeswoman for the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. Over 50 people were missing after the incident.
The vessel was reportedly towing two wooden boats without engines.
Around 140,000 displaced people live in camps in Western Myanmar. Many of those without homes are the stateless Rohingya Muslims, who fled last year's outbreaks of religious violence. At least 192 people were killed in June and October during violence in Rakhine State between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
The Myanmar government denies citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims, and many in the country consider them to be immigrants from Bangladesh.
The UN last week warned that the tropical Cyclone Mahasen, currently gathering strength in the Bay of Bengal, could present "life-threatening conditions" to those in the camps.
"The possibility of the cyclone hitting has added a real urgency to our plans," said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency. "We're building temporary shelters made out of bamboo which will hopefully stand the heavy rains, but with a cyclone, you just don't know what will hold up."
The cyclone is expected to make landfall somewhere near the Myanmar-Bangaldesh border Thursday night, Myanmar's Department of Meteorology said.
The UN has said for months that this year's monsoon poses a risk to Myanmar's displaced people. Up to 45,000 of those displaced people living in low-lying areas in Sittwe have been identified as most vulnerable to Cyclone Mahasen, with some already beginning to move to higher ground.
In May 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, killing as many as 140,000 people.
dr/hc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)