Myanmar on alert as Bay of Bengal cyclone grows

Yangon:  Myanmar's authorities were on alert on Saturday as a cyclone threatened to hit the west of the country where around 140,000 people displaced by communal violence languish in flood-prone camps.

Local radio in Rakhine State, rocked last year by violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, issued warnings while loudspeakers relayed messages to people in villages, Ye Htut spokesman for the President's Office said on his official Facebook page.

Meteorologists said it was unclear whether the cyclone, which on Saturday was barreling through the Bay of Bengal, would hit Rakhine over the next days or veer further west to neighbouring Bangladesh, which is better equipped to deal with severe weather.

"Cyclone Mahasen... is forecast to move northwest (through the Bay) and likely to intensify further into a Severe Cyclonic Storm within (the) next 24 hours," according to advice posted on the website of Myanmar's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.

Heavy rain and strong winds are expected to follow the storm, it said, urging people with fishing boats and other vessels off Myanmar's northwestern coast to seek shelter.

Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest and most remote states, is particularly vulnerable to heavy storms, with makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya people displaced by an eruption of communal violence last year.

The capital Sittwe, home to many of the camps, is low-lying and located on the coast.

In March the UN warned of "yet another tragedy when the monsoon rains hit (the region)" with displaced people -- already short of food, shelter and medicine -- having nowhere to go if a storm strikes.

Thousands of Rohingya have fled the unrest and insanitary camp conditions in recent months on rickety boats, mostly believed to be heading for Malaysia.

Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

Around 140,000 people died when cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. The cost of repairing the damage was estimated at over four billion dollars.

Story First Published: May 11, 2013 19:16 IST

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