Bangladesh cyclone weakens, leaves relief in wake

CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (AFP) - A cyclone slammed into Bangladesh on Thursday, forcing the evacuation of one million people and killing 11, but fears of devastating damage eased when the storm weakened over land.

Bangladesh authorities also found the bodies of 19 Muslim Rohingya from neighbouring Myanmar, missing since their boat capsized on Monday as they fled the oncoming storm. They said the remaining 31 missing would likely wash ashore.

The decomposed bodies, included 12 children and six women, were discovered on a beach near the Myanmar border and "we assume they are of the missing Rohingya" due to their clothes, Cox's Bazar police chief Mohammad Azad Mia told AFP.

Authorities breathed a sigh of relief after Cyclone Mahasen, packing winds of 100kmh when it powered into the low-lying southeastern coast, lost much of its punch after making landfall.

"We're lucky," Shamsuddun Ahmed, deputy head of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, told AFP, adding the cyclone had not been severe and had been downgraded to a tropical depression as it headed for northeastern India.

But at least 11 people were killed by drowning and falling trees, officials said, while tens of thousands of mud, tin and straw-built homes were flattened by pounding rains and flooding.

A million people spent the night in 3,000 cyclone shelters, schools and colleges along Bangladesh's winding long coastline which is home to 30 million people, Chittagong district administrator Mohammad Abdullah told AFP.

"The number of casualties were minimum because of our preparations," disaster management minister Mahmud Ali told reporters in the capital.

Jahangir Alam, 22, carried his paralysed mother to the third floor of a Chittagong school that became a makeshift shelter. "We didn't want to take any risk," he said.

Chan Mia, 50, who brought his family of seven to the same shelter, said the main worry was over storm surges "that can sweep the village within minutes".

Rain and strong winds also lashed Myanmar's northwest coast, home to camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslim Rohingya, but the country was largely spared the brunt of the storm.

Of the one million evacuated in Bangladesh, 600,000 were in the Chittagong region, Abdullah said, adding many now have moved back to their villages.

Mohammad Mehrajuddin, a government official in southern Nijhum Dwip island, said many villagers there had refused to move to shelters for fear their cattle would be stolen.

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

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

Half the residents at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe appeared to have left overnight, according to AFP journalists who visited Thursday.

Than Win, 38, was among those who stayed to guard his tent.

"Some of the IDPs do not trust the authorities," he said. "They worry they will be kept elsewhere and will never be able to come back." Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the region last year left about 200 people dead and neighbourhoods burned to the ground.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have been frequent victims of cyclones that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades.