‘Can’t take this pain’: Rohingya mother searches for son after refugee camp blaze

By Ruma Paul

BALUKHALI REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – After losing her husband, two young sons and her home, Noor Banu thought she had seen the worst of life.

She made the perilous journey from her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to the refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017, with nothing except her four surviving boys.

Now she fears she has lost another son to the massive blaze that ripped through the Cox’s Bazar camps, reducing tarpaulin and bamboo shelters to ash. More than 300 refugees are missing. Eleven-year-old Mohammed Karim is among them.

“I can’t take this pain any more,” Banu said, breaking into sobs as she spoke to Reuters inside a temporary shelter on Friday.

“I believe Karim is dead, and I may not even be able to identify his body.”

The 32-year-old Rohingya Muslim has already seen two sons die by fire.

In 2016, as the Myanmar army poured into Rohingya villages in response to coordinated insurgent attacks on security posts, Banu said her home was set ablaze in Pawet Chaung, killing the two boys – one barely a year old, and another seven.

“My home was torched in front of my eyes,” she said. “I could do nothing to save my children from the blaze.”

Her sons still bear burn marks from the fire.

Banu was among hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar in 2017 following army operations that the United Nations called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar denies the charge and says it was waging legitimate counterinsurgency operations against Rohingya insurgents.

SEARCHING

Banu is one of around a million Rohingya refugees living at the camps. Myanmar denies most Rohingya citizenship and considers them interlopers from Bangladesh even though they have lived in Myanmar for decades.

She – like many others – arrived with the trauma of the violence back home. Her husband went missing in 2015, and she said she later learned he had been arrested and was in jail – she does not know on what charges. She has not heard from him since.

The family stayed at a shelter close to those of her relatives and survived on food aid.

The boys began to attend the religious school at the camps. Slowly, they were learning to build a life out of ruins.

On Monday, Banu said she had just finished with lunch when she heard people screaming and rushed out of her hut. Her four boys, who had been at the madrassa, were running toward her, and behind them, flames were rising from shelters.

“My sons were hurrying home to take me away,” she said.

She grabbed her youngest and ran, but as people scurried from the fire, Banu said she was separated from her other sons.

That evening, two of the boys managed to reach her by making calls through the phones of other refugees. Four days on, there has been no word from Karim.

The ruins of scores of charred huts can be seen at the hilly camps. Some 45,000 refugees have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Some refugees are working to rebuild their tent homes, others search for their relatives. Eleven people have so far been confirmed dead.

Banu has approached aid agencies at the camps to seek help in finding Karim, but her hope is fading.

“My son knows the camps very well,” she said. “If he was alive, he would have returned to me by now.”

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Additional reporting by Mohammad Hossain; Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Alison Williams)

‘Devastating’ fire at Rohingya camp in Bangladesh kills 15, leaves 400 missing – UN

By Ruma Paul and Emma Farge

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while at least 400 remain missing, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.

“It is massive, it is devastating,” said UNHCR’s Johannes Van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.”

He said the UNHCR had reports of more than 550 people injured and about 45,000 displaced.

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the blaze even as emergency and aid workers and families sift through the debris looking for further victims. The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of shanties as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

“Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes,” Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. “The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long.”

Authorities in Bangladesh have so far confirmed 11 deaths.

Some 40,000 huts in the camp were burned down, said Mohammad Mohsin, secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, after visiting the camp.

Two major hospitals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Turkish government were also destroyed, he told reporters in Cox’s Bazar.

“A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the matter,” he said.

Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s delegation head in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed and tens of thousands of people displaced.

More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said. That represents around one-tenth of an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, Kafley said.

“I have been in Cox’s Bazar for three-and-a-half years and have never seen such a fire,” he told Reuters. “These people have been displaced two times. For many, there is nothing left.”

BARBED WIRE

Some witnesses said that barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.

Humanitarian organization Refugees International, which estimated 50,000 people had been displaced, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.

“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement.

John Quinley of Fortify Rights, a rights organization working with Rohingya, said he had heard similar reports, adding the fences had hampered the distribution of humanitarian aid and vital services at the camps in the past.

“The government must remove the fences and protect refugees,” Quinley said. “There have now been a number of large fires in the camps including a large fire in January this year… The authorities must do a proper investigation into the cause of the fires.”

The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that U.N. investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting and writing by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Editing by Jane Wardell and Bernadette Baum)

Fire destroys thousands of homes in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – A huge fire swept through Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh on Monday, destroying thousands of homes, officials and witnesses said.

Video shot by a resident showed a blaze ripping through the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, with people scrambling to recover their possessions amid burning shanties and tents.

“Fire services, rescue and response teams and volunteers are at the scene to try to control the fire and prevent it spreading further,” said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, where refugees live in ramshackle huts.

Rohingya refugees in the camps said many homes were burned down and several people had died, but neither the authorities nor UNHCR confirmed there were any deaths.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent,” charges Myanmar denies.

“The fire spread so quickly that before we understood what happened, it caught our house. People were screaming and running here and there. Children were also running … crying for their family,” said Tayeba Begum, a Save the Children volunteer who witnessed the fire.

A Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he saw several dead bodies.

“Thousand of huts were totally burned down,” Mohammed Nowkhim told Reuters.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said: “We are trying to control the blaze.”

Another large blaze tore through the camp in January, destroying homes but causing no casualties.

The risk of fire in the densely populated camps is high, and Monday’s blaze was the largest yet, said Onno Van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.

“It is another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here. Just a couple of days ago we lost one of our health facilities in another fire,” he said.

The UNHCR said humanitarian partners had mobilized hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps for the support operation, as well as fire safety vehicles and equipment.

“So far the fire has affected shelters, health centers, distribution points and other facilities,” spokeswoman Donovan said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Mike Collett-White)

Bangladesh to move 2,000-3,000 more Rohingya Muslims to remote island despite criticism

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh will move 2,000-3,000 more Rohingya Muslim refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal this week, a navy officer said on Wednesday, despite complaints by rights groups concerned about the site’s vulnerability to storms and flooding.

Bangladesh has relocated about 3,500 of the refugees from neighboring Myanmar to Bhasan Char island since early December from border camps where a million live in ramshackle huts perched on razed hillsides.

Bhasan Char emerged from the sea only two decades ago and is several hours by boat from the nearest port at Chittagong. The Rohingya, a minority group who fled violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are not allowed to move off the island without government permission.

“Most probably, they will be taken to Chittagong tomorrow and the next day, they will be sent to Bhasan Char from there,” Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury told Reuters.

“Last time, we had preparations for 700 to 1,000 but finally more than 1,800 Rohingya moved there. People who moved earlier are calling their relatives and friends to go there. That’s why more people are going there.”

Bangladesh justifies the move to the island saying overcrowding in the camps in Cox’s Bazar is leading to crimes.

It also dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2-metre (6.5 feet) embankment for 12 km (7.5 miles) to protect the island along with housing for 100,000 people, as well as facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals.

Its actions, nevertheless, have attracted criticism from relief agencies that have not been consulted on the transfers.

“The U.N. has previously shared terms of reference with the government for the technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char, though we have not yet been permitted to carry out these assessments,” the U.N. refugee agency said in an email.

“We emphasize that all movements to Bhasan Char must be voluntary and based upon full information regarding the conditions of life on the island and the rights and services that refugees will be able to access there.”

The government says the relocation is voluntary but some refugees from the first group that went there in early December have spoken of being coerced.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Fire destroys homes of thousands in Rohingya refugee camps – UNHCR

(Reuters) – A huge fire swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh in the early hours of Thursday, the United Nations said, destroying homes belonging to thousands of people.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said more than 550 shelters home to around 3,500 people were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organization.

Photographs and video provided to Reuters by a Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp showed families including children, sifting through charred corrugated iron sheets to see if they could salvage anything from their still smoldering homes. But little remained of the camp, which had stood for decades, aside from concrete poles and the husks of a few trees.

“E block is completely burned down,” said the refugee, Mohammed Arakani. “There is nothing left. There was nothing saved. Everything is burned down.”

“Everyone is crying,” he said. “They lost all their belongings. They lost everything, completely burned down, they lost all their goods.”

UNHCR said it was providing shelter, materials, winter clothes, hot meals, and medical care for the refugees displaced from the camp in the Cox’s Bazar district, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh.

“Security experts are liaising with the authorities to investigate on the cause of fire,” the agency said, adding that no casualties were reported.

Onno van Manen, Save the Children’s Country Director in Bangladesh, called the fire “another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years”.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the fire service spent two hours putting out the blaze, but was hampered by the explosion of gas cylinders inside homes.

The Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island in recent weeks, despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

The fire destroyed part of a camp inhabited by Rohingya who fled Myanmar after an earlier military campaign, according to refugees.

(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson and Ruma Paul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

A day on Rohingya’s remote Bangladesh island

By Mohammad Ponir Hossain

BHASAN CHAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – As a Bangladeshi naval ship anchored off a remote Bay of Bengal island, some of the Rohingya refugees aboard clapped in anticipation of starting a new life on a piece of land that did not even exist two decades ago.

Carrying poultry and sacks of belongings, they are part of a second group of about 1,800 Rohingya that Bangladesh moved on Tuesday from cramped refugee camps on the mainland to the low-lying island despite opposition from rights groups.

“Welcome to Bhasan Char,” read a banner as the refugees walked off the jetty on the island, nearly as big as Manhattan. Navy trucks and tractor trailers took them to multiple rows of concrete houses with their pinkish-red painted tin roofs.

A Reuters photographer was among a team of journalists given rare access to the island that is about three hours from the nearest port in Chittagong, and is fully exposed to nature’s vagaries in a country with a tragic history of deadly storms.

Bangladesh says it has spent more than $350 million of its own money to ready housing and other infrastructure to voluntarily move some 100,000 Rohingya to the island in an effort to ease overcrowding in camps near the Myanmar border, even though rights groups said many were being coerced or paid to move. The government denies the charges.

“Mashallah! Wonderful place,” one man, a father of six, exclaimed using an Arabic expression for appreciation at the arrangements at Bhasan Char.

“We are so happy with the accommodation. The children are so excited to see the playground,” he said, but added: “We just pray floods don’t kill us.”

CHEEK BY JOWL

The government said earlier this month that the housing was built on concrete foundation which could withstand natural disasters, noting it withstood cyclone Amphan in May which killed more than 100 people in Bangladesh and eastern India.

A middle-aged man who reached Bhasan Char with his wife and three children on Tuesday said his camp leader had convinced him that they were better off relocating than staying back in the dilapidated shelters on the mainland where one million of them live cheek by jowl.

Reuters is withholding the names of the Rohingya to protect their identity as some in the community are against the move to the isolated island from where they won’t be allowed to leave without government permission.

The government has built a 2-metre (6.5 feet) high embankment for 12 kms (7.5 miles) to protect the island, where sheep grazed on its greenish-grey grass as the new arrivals were screened for coronavirus by health workers in white overalls.

Reuters was not allowed to meet with a previous group of some 1,600 Rohingya that was relocated early this month, but a Navy SUV drove journalists through the cemented lanes separating neat rows of grey-walled housing blocks with wide porches.

Journalists were also shown around an empty room with two steel-and-plastic bunk beds for four people, a community kitchen with multiple stoves separated by small concrete partitions and a fresh-water pond. A big white bungalow enclosed with a fence is reserved for VVIPs in case anyone fancies a visit.

“The Rohingya people who have shifted there are very happy with the arrangement,” Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Krishna N. Das and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Exclusive: New global lab network will compare COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A major non-profit health emergencies group has set up a global laboratory network to assess data from potential COVID-19 vaccines, allowing scientists and drugmakers to compare them and speed up selection of the most effective shots.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of announcing the labs involved, Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said the idea was to “compare apples with apples” as drugmakers race to develop an effective shot to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The centralized network is the first of its kind to be set up in response to a pandemic.

In a network spanning Europe, Asia and North America, the labs will centralize analysis of samples from trials of COVID-19 candidates “as though vaccines are all being tested under one roof”, Saville said, aiming to minimize the risk of variation in results.

“When you start off (with developing potential new vaccines) especially with a new disease, everyone develops their own assays, they all use different protocols and different reagents – so while you get a readout, the ability to compare between different candidates is very difficult,” she told Reuters.

“By taking the centralized lab approach … it will give us a chance to really make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

The CEPI network will initially involve six labs, one each in Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India, Saville said.

Hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development around the world, with shots developed in Russia and China already being deployed before full efficacy trials have been done, and front-runners from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca likely to have final-stage trial results before year-end.

Typically, the immunogenicity of potential vaccines is assessed in individual lab analyses, which aim to see whether biomarkers of immune response – such as antibodies and T-cell responses – are produced after clinical trial volunteers receive a dose, or doses, of the vaccine candidate.

But with more than 320 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, Saville said, the many differences in data collection and evaluation methods are an issue.

As well as potential variations in markers of immunity, there are differences in how and where samples are collected, transported and stored – all of which can impact the quality and usefulness of the data produced, and make comparisons tricky.

And with a range of different vaccine technologies being explored – from viral vector vaccines to ones based on messenger RNA – standard evaluation of their true potential “becomes very complex”, she said.

“With hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in development … it’s essential that we have a system that can reliably evaluate and compare the immune response of candidates currently undergoing testing,” she said.

By centralizing the analysis in a lab network, much of what Saville called the “inter-laboratory variability” can be removed, allowing for head-to-head comparisons.

CEPI says all developers of potential COVID-19 vaccines can use the centralized lab network for free to assess their candidates against a common protocol. For now, the network will assess samples from early-stage vaccine candidate testing and first and second stage human trials, but CEPI said it hoped to expand its capacity to late stage (Phase III) trial data in the coming months.

Results produced by the network will be sent back to the developer, with neither CEPI nor the network owning the data.

CEPI itself is co-funding nine of the potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, including candidates from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and CureVac.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Potter)

Cyclone kills at least 82 in India, Bangladesh, causes widespread flooding

By Ruma Paul and and Subrata Nagchoudhury

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – The most powerful cyclone to strike eastern India and Bangladesh in over a decade killed at least 82 people, officials said, as rescue teams scoured devastated coastal villages, hampered by torn down power lines and flooding over large tracts of land.

Mass evacuations organized by authorities before Cyclone Amphan made landfall undoubtedly saved countless lives, but the full extent of the casualties and damage to property would only be known once communications were restored, officials said.

In the Indian state of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on Thursday that at least 72 people had perished – most of them either electrocuted or killed by trees uprooted by winds that gusted up to 185 km per hour (115 mph).

In neighboring Bangladesh, the initial toll was put at 10.

“I have never seen such a cyclone in my life. It seemed like the end of the world. All I could do was to pray… Almighty Allah saved us,” Azgar Ali, 49, a resident of Satkhira district on the Bangladesh coast told Reuters.

Mohammad Asaduzzaman, a senior police official in the area said the storm tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines and left many villages inundated.

When the cyclone barrelled in from the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday the storm surge of around five meters resulted in flooding across the low-lying coastal areas.

Reuters Television footage shot in West Bengal showed upturned boats on the shore, people wading through knee-deep water and buses crashed into each other. More images showed villagers trying to lift fallen electricity poles, fishermen hauling their boats out of a choppy sea, and uprooted trees lying strewn across the countryside.

Designated a super cyclone, Amphan has weakened since making landfall. Moving inland through Bangladesh, it was downgraded to a cyclonic storm on Thursday by the Indian weather office. And the storm was expected to subside into a depression later.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted a tweet expressing concern over the people suffering in West Bengal.

“Have been seeing visuals from West Bengal on the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan. In this challenging hour, the entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal,” he said.

Concern was growing over flooding in the Sundarbans, an ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border, best known for thick mangrove forests and its tiger reserve.

“The tidal surge submerged some part of the forest,” said Belayet Hossain, a forest official on the Bangladesh side of the forest. “We have seen trees uprooted, the tin-roofs of the guard towers blown off,” he said.

Over on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, a village official said embankments surrounding a low-lying island, where some 5,000 people live, had been washed away, and he had been unable to contact authorities for help.

“We have not been able inform them about anything since last night, the official, Sanjib Sagar, told Reuters.

MASS EVACUATIONS

Authorities in both countries managed to evacuate more than three million people, moving them to storm shelters before Amphan struck. But the evacuation effort was focused on communities that lay directly in the cyclone’s path, leaving villages on the flanks still vulnerable.

The airport in Kolkata, West Bengal’s state capital, lay underwater and several neighborhoods in the city of 14 million people have had no electricity since the storm struck, according to residents.

After the storm passed people were trying to retrieve articles from the rubble of their shops in the city.

Pradip Kumar Dalui, an official in the state’s South 24 Parganas area, said that storm waters breached river embankments in several places, flooding over half a dozen villages, that were home for more than 100,000 people.

Electricity lines and phone connections were down in many places, but so far no deaths had been reported in this area, he said.

The cyclone came at a time when the two countries are battling to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and some evacuees were initially reluctant to leave their homes for fear of possible infection in the packed storm shelters.

 

(Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneshwar, Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Cyclone kills 14 in India, Bangladesh leaving trail of destruction

By Subrata Nagchoudhary and Ruma Paul

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – A powerful cyclone pounded eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and destroying thousands of homes, officials said, leaving authorities struggling to mount relief efforts amid a surging coronavirus outbreak.

The populous Indian state of West Bengal took the brunt of Cyclone Amphan, which barrelled out of the Bay of Bengal with gusting winds of up to 185 km per hour (115 mph) and a storm surge of around five meters.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at least 10 people had died in the state, and two districts been completely battered by one of the strongest storms to hit the region in several years.

“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted,” Banerjee said, adding that although 500,000 people had been evacuated, state authorities had not entirely anticipated the ferocity of the storm.

With rains continuing, she said the hardest hits areas were not immediately accessible. Federal authorities said they could only make a proper assessment of the destruction on Thursday morning.

“We are facing greater damage and devastation than the CoVID-19,” Banerjee said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has so far killed 250 people in the state.

Members of National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF) remove a branch of an uprooted tree after Cyclone Amphan made its landfall, in Digha, near the border between the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, India, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

In West Bengal’s capital city, Kolkata, strong winds upturned cars and felled trees and electricity poles. Parts of the city were plunged into darkness.

An official in the adjoining Hooghly district said thousands of mud homes were damaged by raging winds.

In neighboring Bangladesh, at least four people were killed, officials said, with power supplies cut off in some districts.

Authorities there had shifted around 2.4 million people to more than 15,000 storm shelters this week. Bangladeshi officials also said they had moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, to shelter.

But officials said they feared that standing crops could be damaged and large tracts of fertile land in the densely-populated country washed away.

“Fortunately, the harvesting of the rice crop has almost been completed. Still, it could leave a trail of destruction,” said Mizanur Rahman Khan, a senior official in the Bangladesh agriculture ministry.

Cyclones frequently batter parts of eastern India and Bangladesh between April and December, often forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands and causing widespread damage.

SURGE AND HIGH TIDE

Surging waters broke through embankments surrounding an island in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district, destroying more than 500 homes, local official Rezaul Karim said.

“We could avoid casualties as people were moved to cyclone centers earlier,” Karim said.

Embankments were also breached in West Bengal’s Sundarban delta, where weather authorities had said the surge whipped up by the cyclone could inundate up to 15 km inland.

The ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border is best known for thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat and is home to around 4 million people in India.

On the Sundarbans’ Ghoramara island, resident Sanjib Sagar said several embankments surrounding settlements had been damaged, and some flooding had started.

“A lot of houses have been damaged,” he told Reuters by phone.

Anamitra Anurag Danda, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank who has extensively studied the Sundarbans, said that embankments across the area may have been breached.

“The cyclone surge coincided with the new moon high tides. It is devastation in the coastal belt,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR, Writing by Rupam Jain and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Nick Macfie, Alex Richardson and Nick Zieminski)

Cyclone Amphan tears into India, Bangladesh, destroys homes, whips up storm surge

By Subrata Nagchoudhary and Ruma Paul

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – A powerful cyclone tore into eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, destroying mud houses and embankments and whipping up a storm surge along the coast, officials said, after millions of people were moved out of its path.

At least one 70-year-old man was killed by a falling tree in Bangladesh’s coastal Bhola district, a police official said. The low-lying country has evacuated 2.4 million people to shelters.

Another 650,000 people have been moved to safety in the eastern Indian states of Odisha and West Bengal, authorities said, an operation carried out amid surging coronavirus infections.

It was too early to estimate a toll on life or damage to property.

Cyclone Amphan began moving inland with winds gusting up to 185 kph, Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director-general of the India Meteorological Department, told reporters.

Mohapatra said that the storm surge could rise to around five meters in the Sundarbans delta, home to around four million people and thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat.

“Our estimate is that some areas 10-15 kilometers from the coast could be inundated,” Mohapatra said.

On the Sundarbans’ Ghoramara island, resident Sanjib Sagar said several embankments surrounding settlements had been damaged, and some flooding had started.

“A lot of houses have been damaged,” he told Reuters by phone.

The storm will also sweep past Kolkata, a sprawling city of 4.5 million people, where strong winds uprooted trees and electricity poles, littering several streets, television showed.

A home ministry official said authorities in West Bengal and neighboring Odisha had struggled to house thousands of evacuees as shelters were being used as coronavirus quarantine centers.

Extra shelters were being prepared in markets and government buildings with allowances made for social distancing, while masks were being distributed to villagers.

Police in West Bengal said some people were unwilling to go to the shelters because they were afraid of being infected by the coronavirus and many were refusing to leave their livestock.

“We have literally had to force people out of their homes, make them wear masks and put them in government buildings,” said a senior police official in Kolkata.

In Bangladesh, standing crops could be damaged and large tracts of fertile land washed away, officials said. Farmers were being helped to move produce and hundreds of thousands of animals to higher ground.

“Fortunately, the harvesting of the rice crop has almost been completed. Still it could leave a trail of destruction,” Mizanur Rahman Khan, a senior official in the Bangladesh agriculture ministry, said.

Bangladeshi officials also said they had moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, to shelter.

(GRAPHIC: Map of cyclone path – https://ppe.graphics.reuters.com/ASIA-STORM/INDIA-BANGLADESH/xklpykdqpgd/Amphan-cyclone.jpg)

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR, Writing by Rupam Jain and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)