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Thousands of new Rohingya refugees flee violence and hunger in Myanmar

Rohingya refugees walk through a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh in Palongkhali near Ukhia on Monday. — AFP

COX’S BAZAR/YANGON — Hungry, destitute and scared, thousands of new Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh from Myanmar early on Monday, witnesses said, fleeing hunger and attacks by Buddhist mobs that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

Wading through waist-deep water with children strapped to their sides, the refugees told Reuters they had walked through bushes and forded monsoon-swollen streams for days.

A seemingly never-ending flow entered Bangladesh near the village of Palongkhali. Many were injured, with the elderly carried on makeshift stretchers, while women balanced household items, such as pots, rice sacks and clothing, on their heads.

“We couldn’t step out of the house for the last month because the military were looting people,” said Mohammad Shoaib, 29, who wore a yellow vest and balanced jute bags of food and aluminum pots on a bamboo pole. “They started firing on the village. So we escaped into another.

“Day by day, things kept getting worse, so we started moving towards Bangladesh. Before we left, I went back near my village to see my house, and the entire village was burnt down,” Shoaib added.

They joined about 536,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar since Aug. 25, when coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labeled the militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who launched the attacks as terrorists, who have killed civilians and burnt villages.

Not everyone made it to Bangladesh alive on Monday.

Several kilometers to the south of Palongkhali, a boat carrying scores of refugees sank at dawn, killing at least 12 and leaving 35 missing. There were 21 survivors, Bangladesh authorities said.

“So far 12 bodies, including six children and four women, have been recovered,” said police official Moinuddin Khan.

Bangladesh border guards told Reuters the boat sank because it was overloaded with refugees, who pay exorbitant fees to cross the Naf River, which forms a natural border with Myanmar in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh.

The sinking came about a week after another boat capsized in the estuary on the river, which has become a graveyard for dozens of Muslim refugees.

Refugees who survived the perilous journey said they were driven out by hunger because food markets in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State have been shut and aid deliveries restricted. They also reported attacks by the military and Rakhine Buddhist mobs.

The influx will worsen the unprecedented humanitarian emergency unfolding in Cox’s Bazar, where aid workers are battling to provide refugees with food, clean water and shelter.

On Monday, the Red Cross opened a field hospital as big as two football fields, with 60 beds, three wards, an operating theatre, a delivery suite with maternity ward and a psychosocial support unit.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already been in Bangladesh after fleeing previous spasms of violence in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced curbs on their movements and access to basic services.

The United States and the European Union are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders, officials have said.

EU foreign ministers were scheduled to discuss Myanmar on Monday, and their draft joint statement said the bloc “will suspend invitations to the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar/Burma armed forces and other senior military officers”. — Reuters