COX'S BAZAR/YANGON (REUTERS/AFP) - Hungry, destitute and scared, thousands of new Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh from Myanmar early on Monday (Oct 16), Reuters witnesses said, fleeing hunger and attacks by Buddhist mobs that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
Wading through waist-deep water with children strapped to their sides, the refugees told Reuters they had walked through bushes and forded monsoon-swollen streams for days.
A seemingly never-ending flow entered Bangladesh near the village of Palongkhali. Many were injured, with the elderly carried on makeshift stretchers, while women balanced household items, such as pots, rice sacks and clothing, on their heads.
"We couldn't step out of the house for the last month because the military were looting people," said Mohammad Shoaib, 29, who wore a yellow vest and balanced jute bags of food and aluminium pots on a bamboo pole. "They started firing on the village. So we escaped into another.
"Day by day, things kept getting worse, so we started moving towards Bangladesh. Before we left, I went back near my village to see my house, and the entire village was burnt down," Shoaib added.
The UN said 582,000 members of the Rohingya community had crossed into Bangladesh since Aug 25, when coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape. The latest figure marks a jump of 45,000 from the 537,000 figure given at the weekend.
Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labelled the militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who launched the attacks as terrorists, who have killed civilians and burnt villages.
Not everyone made it to Bangladesh alive on Monday.
Several kilometres to the south of Palongkhali, a boat carrying scores of refugees sank at dawn, killing at least 12 and leaving 35 missing. There were 21 survivors, Bangladesh authorities said.
"So far 12 bodies, including six children and four women, have been recovered," said police official Moinuddin Khan.
Bangladesh border guards told Reuters the boat sank because it was overloaded with refugees, who pay exorbitant fees to cross the Naf River, which forms a natural border with Myanmar in the Cox's Bazar region of Bangladesh.
The sinking came about a week after another boat capsized in the estuary on the river, which has become a graveyard for dozens of Muslim refugees.
Refugees who survived the perilous journey said they were driven out by hunger because food markets in Myanmar's western Rakhine State have been shut and aid deliveries restricted. They also reported attacks by the military and Rakhine Buddhist mobs.
The influx will worsen the unprecedented humanitarian emergency unfolding in Cox's Bazar, where aid workers are battling to provide refugees with food, clean water and shelter.
On Monday, the Red Cross opened a field hospital as big as two football fields, with 60 beds, three wards, an operating theatre, a delivery suite with maternity ward and a psychosocial support unit.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already been in Bangladesh after fleeing previous spasms of violence in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced curbs on their movements and access to basic services.
The United States and the European Union are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar's military leaders, officials have told Reuters.
EU foreign ministers will discuss Myanmar on Monday, and their draft joint statement said the bloc "will suspend invitations to the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar/Burma armed forces and other senior military officers".
The powerful army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, told the United States ambassador in Myanmar last week that the exodus of Rohingya, whom he called non-native "Bengalis", was exaggerated.
But despite Myanmar's denials and assurances that aid was on its way to the north of violence-torn Rakhine State, thousands more starving people were desperate to leave.
"We fled from our home because we had nothing to eat in my village," said Jarhni Ahlong, a 28-year-old Rohingya man from the southern region of Buthidaung, who had been stranded on the Myanmar side of the Naf for a week, waiting to cross.
From the thousands gathered there awaiting an opportunity to escape, about 400 paid roughly US$50 (S$67.80) each to flee on nine or 10 boats on Monday morning, he added.
"I think if we go to Bangladesh we can get food," he said.