The United Nations says a boat evacuating as many as 150 Rohingya Muslim refugees has capsized off the coast of western Burma, as tens of thousands scramble to leave low-lying refugee camps in preparation for an incoming cyclone.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday a boat towing two other boats struck rocks near Pauktaw township in Burma's Rakhine state. It said an unknown number of people were missing, with many feared dead.
The incident happened Monday, as the refugees were being moved to what the U.N. office called "other Muslim host communities" in that part of Burma.
Aid agencies continue to warn of a possible humanitarian disaster that could result from heavy flooding and mudslides when tropical Cyclone Mahasen hits the coast of western Burma and Bangladesh late Wednesday.
Most at risk are the tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, living in squalid refugee camps in flood-prone areas of Rakhine. They were displaced following Buddhist-Muslim violence last year that killed nearly 200 people.
Human Rights Watch is one of several aid groups that has for weeks warned the Burmese government of the danger that the incoming rainy season poses to the refugee camps.
In a statement Tuesday, the New York-based group said Burma did not heed the repeated warnings to relocate the displaced persons. If the government fails to evacuate all those at risk, it said any disaster "will not be natural, but man-made."
The group says tens of thousands of people have not yet been evacuated from dangerous areas as of Tuesday. In some cases, it said "Rohingya were for unknown reasons being moved closer to the sea."
The U.N. said early Tuesday that 13,000 people have so far been relocated in the previous 24 hours. Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said on her Twitter account she is very concerned about the cyclone, which she said could be life threatening for millions in Bangladesh, Burma and India.
Burma is no stranger to devastating cyclones. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irrawaddy delta region, killing more than 130,000 people.