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Burma refugees drown fleeing storm


A makeshift camp for Rohingya people in Burma (AP)

A makeshift camp for Rohingya people in Burma (AP)

A makeshift camp for Rohingya people in Burma (AP)

Overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 people trying to escape an approaching cyclone have capsized off the coast of Burma with dozens feared drowned.

Eight bodies have been found so far, and more than 50 other people who were aboard are thought to have died, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

The boats were carrying Rohingya Muslims, a long-suffering minority, who had been living in camps in Burma's Rakhine state after fleeing sectarian violence last year. They crowded into as many as five boats that left Pauktaw township. Reports indicated that one of the boats was towing the others and hit a rock, causing all to capsize.

The accident came amid a wider evacuation ahead of Cyclone Mahasen, which the UN says could swamp makeshift housing camps sheltering tens of thousands of Rohingya.

Around 140,000 people - mostly Rohingya - are living in flimsy tents and makeshift shelters in the region after two outbreaks of Buddhist-Muslim violence there last year, according to the U.N. humanitarian affairs office.

Ashok Nigam, the United Nations' resident and humanitarian coordinator, said this week that nearly 70,000 of those displaced should be moved to higher ground. They are in low-lying areas along the coast that are susceptible to tidal surges and flooding.

Cyclone Mahasen is expected to make landfall late on Thursday or early Friday. It is heading toward Chittagong, Bangladesh, but could shift north east and deliver a more direct hit to Rakhine state.

Aid groups have issued warnings for weeks that annual monsoon rains could cause flooding and spark disease outbreaks, wreaking havoc on displaced people in their camps and spark disease outbreaks.

Burma's southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people.

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