Scores missing after boat sinks off Myanmar coast

YANGON Sun Nov 3, 2013 11:21am EST

YANGON (Reuters) - Around 50 members of a Muslim minority in Myanmar are feared drowned after trying to flee Rakhine state in a boat that sank in the early hours of Sunday, according to a community leader and a security official.

Rohingya have been leaving Myanmar in droves since clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who make up the majority of the state's population, erupted in June and October 2012. The government said at least 192 people died in the violence and the United Nations says about 140,000 people remain in camps.

The vast majority of those killed and displaced were Rohingya and growing numbers are now making treacherous journeys by boat to countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Many have been in Rakhine state for generations, but the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and severely limits their movements.

Families of the missing people kept watch on the beach throughout Sunday, said Aung Win, a leader of the Muslim Rohingya community.

"I saw people waiting there to find dead bodies," he told Reuters by phone from the state capital, Sittwe.

A security officer said seven passengers on the boat that sank were rescued and there were unconfirmed reports that eight more may have reached land north of Ohntawgyi, a village about 12 miles north of Sittwe where there is also a camp for displaced Rohingya and where the boat departed from.

Some survivors clung to debris while fisherman rescued others, said the officer who requested anonymity. The boat was carrying 60 people, he said.

Ohntawgyi was the site of clashes in August between Rohingya and police who opened fire on a crowd that had gathered to protest after the battered corpse of a Rohingya fisherman washed ashore.

The security officer said more violence erupted on Saturday in Pauktaw, an area about two hours northeast of Sittwe by boat, killing at least three Rohingya and one Rakhine.

The body of a Rohingya man was discovered in an area near a Buddhist pagoda where a group of Rohingya had gone from their camp to collect firewood, he said. Police confronted an angry crowd at the camp and opened fire, wounding three people, including one who later died in hospital.

A rakhine woman was killed in what appeared to be a retaliatory attack, and the body of another Rohingya man was discovered on Sunday morning, he said.

The United Nations refugee agency has warned of a mass exodus of Rohingya as the rainy season ends in coming weeks.

A spokesman for the agency in Geneva said about 24,000 Rohingya were thought to have left Myanmar by boat this year, and more than 400 had died or gone missing during the journey.

(Additional reporting by Soe Zeya Tun; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)