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Cyclone rips into Bangladesh after mass evacuations

A cyclone ripped into the Bangladeshi coast Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people hunkered down in evacuation shelters, including in a region of Myanmar torn by communal unrest.

world Updated: May 16, 2013 12:07 IST

A cyclone ripped into the Bangladeshi coast Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people hunkered down in evacuation shelters, including in a region of Myanmar torn by communal unrest.

Two people died as Cyclone Mahasen hit Bangladesh's southern Patuakhali coast, officials said, while heavy rains and strong winds also lashed neighbouring Myanmar's northwest coast, home to tens of thousands of displaced Muslim Rohingya.

Weather officials said that Mahasen was likely to whip the heavily populated coastline stretching from Bangladesh's second city Chittagong to the Cox's Bazaar tourist region in the afternoon.

But fears of widespread damage receded as Mahasen appeared to have lost some of its power after languishing over the Bay of Bengal for several days, and made landfall packing winds of up to 90 kilometres (56 miles) per hour.

"Cyclone Mahasen started crossing the Patuakhali coast at 9:00am (0300 GMT) on Thursday," Shamsuddun Ahmed, deputy director of the Bangladesh meteorological department, told AFP.

"It is not a severe cyclone. It did not gain strength in the last part of its journey as it hit the coast."

Provincial administrator Nurul Amin said two elderly people had been killed, one of whom drowned after being swept into a lake. Reports said the second victim was hit by a falling tree.

Low-lying areas were submerged by a one-metre (three-foot) storm surge, less than earlier feared.

"We're lucky that it hit the coast during low-tide," said Ahmed.

About 800,000 people spent the night in more than 2,000 cyclone shelters as well as schools and colleges along Bangladesh's long coastline.

Jahangir Alam, 22, brought his paralysed mother to the Patenga Girls School in Chittagong, carrying her up to the third floor which had been turned into a makeshift cyclone shelter.

"We live in a low-lying area so we didn't want to take any risk. The government gave us food last night," he told AFP.

Chan Mia, who had brought his family of seven to the same shelter, said the main concern was about the storm surges.

"We are not afraid of the wind. We are more worried about storm surges that can sweep the village within minutes," said the 50-year-old.

Of the total, 600,000 people alone were evacuated in the Chittagong region, provincial administrator Mohammad Abdullah told AFP.

"We have enough food, medicine and other facilities in these shelters," he said, adding that the armed forces are on standby.

Mohammad Mehrajuddin, an elected local government head of southern Nijhum Dwip Island, told AFP by phone that many villagers in his area did not move to cyclone shelters for fear their cattle would be stolen.

There was a similar reluctance to move among the Muslim Rohingya across the border in Myanmar's Rakhine state, reflecting a deep mistrust of the security forces and local Buddhists after communal violence last year.

State media in Myanmar said that by Wednesday 70,000 people had been evacuated from the camps and vulnerable local villages.

About half of the residents at one camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe appeared to have moved out overnight, according to AFP journalists who visited on Thursday morning.

Than Win, 38, was among those staying behind to guard his tent.

"Some of the IDPs do not trust the authorities," he said.

"They worry that they will be kept elsewhere and will never be able to come back," he said, adding that the rest of his family had moved to higher ground.

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the region last year left about 200 people dead and whole neighbourhoods burned to the ground.

Fifty-eight Rohingya were left missing after their boat capsized Monday as they tried to escape the cyclone by sea to higher ground along the coast.

Aid workers have expressed fears for the safety of the coastal dwellers.

"In many of the areas, sub-standard housing means people have little protection from the heavy wind and rain that comes with a cyclone," said Jeff Wright, emergency operations director at World Vision.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have both been frequent victims of cyclones which have left hundreds of thousands of people dead in recent decades.

Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killed about 140,000 people.

Cyclone Sidr killed at least 4,000 in southern Bangladesh in November 2007.