Updated: Tue, 14 May 2013 10:43:32 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

Rohingya boats capsize off Myanmar as cyclone looms

Boats carrying scores of Rohingya Muslims fleeing a cyclone have capsized off Myanmar's coast, the UN said Tuesday, heightening fears over the storm which threatens camps for tens of thousands of displaced people.

Rohingya boats capsize off Myanmar as cyclone looms

A storm lights up the sky above the Yangon river early on May 13, 2013. Boats carrying scores of Rohingya Muslims fleeing a cyclone have capsized off Myanmar's coast, the UN says, heightening fears over the storm which threatens camps for tens of thousands of displaced people.

The vessels hit trouble on Monday night after leaving Pauktaw township in Rakhine state, said a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, adding "they were travelling to another camp ahead of the cyclone".

As details slowly emerged from the remote area, where mass evacuations were also taking place ahead of the expected cyclone, the UN revised down the number stricken passengers to around 100, travelling in several boats.

The number of missing remained unknown, but a Rohingya Muslim living in Pauktaw said many were feared dead after leaving by boat to seek higher ground further along the coast.

About 140,000 people displaced by communal violence last year are living in flimsy tents or makeshift housing across coastal areas of Rakhine -- exposed to Cyclone Mahasen, which is gathering strength in the Bay of Bengal.

The cyclone is forecast to carry winds of up to 100 miles per hour before making landfall somewhere near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on Thursday night, according to an update by ASEAN's disaster relief arm, which collates information from local and international sources.

"The Pauktaw camps housing 17,000 IDPs (internally displaced persons) are particularly vulnerable," the ASEAN department said, adding that camps on rice paddies would be swamped by any storm surge.

Bangladeshi authorities have warned that the cyclone could barrel into coastal homes there, but stopped short of issuing an evacuation order for residents in the low-lying Chittagong area, which is home to some 30 million people.

The Muslim nation is also home to a large, long-standing Rohingya refugee population -- estimated at around 300,000 -- with many living in cramped coastal camps just over the border from Rakhine.

The cyclone was Tuesday hovering over the Bay of Bengal, around 1,000 kilometres (700 miles) from land.

It threatens to worsen the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, which was sparked by last year's deadly violence that saw around 200 people killed and the homes of tens of thousands of people razed.

Myanmar's army was deployed to help evacuate those most at risk, but some international observers said the effort had come too late after months of warnings over the danger posed to the camps by this year's monsoon.

"If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural but man-made," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The warnings have revived memories of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008 and killed about 140,000 people.

The UN started preparations over the weekend to provide shelter for up to 13,000 displaced people in the state capital Sittwe, amid fears a tidal surge could sweep through camps in low-lying areas.

But there were signs Tuesday of increasing desperation among the displaced -- the majority of them stateless Rohingya uprooted by two outbreaks of deadly religious violence since June last year.

Some had reportedly refused to leave their shelters in a sign of the festering mistrust of their ethnic Rakhine neighbours and security forces charged with helping them survive the cyclone.

"We do not want to move to another place in this weather," Maung Maung a Rohingya Muslim told AFP by telephone from a camp outside Sittwe.

"We are better off staying here to die."

An official from Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar district, the site of a number of Rohingya refugee camps, said authorities were using loudspeakers to warn islanders and coastal dwellers of the storm.

"We have also warned fishermen not to go to the sea. Medical teams have been kept on standby and we've stockpiled dry food, water and medicine to face any situation," district government administrator Ruhul Amin told AFP.

Thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar in rickety and overcrowded boats since last year's unrest and scores have died making the perilous journey south towards Thailand and Malaysia.

Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

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