Monsoon floods and landslides have cut off more than 300,000 people in villages across southeast Bangladesh and killed at least 20 people including six Rohingya refugees, officials said Friday.
The region along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border where nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are in camps has been battered by torrential rain since Monday.
“The floods have stranded some 306,000 people in Cox’s Bazar district. At least 70 villages have been submerged by floods,” Mamunur Rashid, the district administrator, told AFP.
“At least 20 people have died in floods and landslides including six Rohingya refugees,” he added.
About 36,000 people have been moved into schools and cyclone shelters, officials said.
“Many homes are waterlogged. Thousands of people have not been able to get out for the last three days. The roads are all blocked,” Tipu Sultan, a councillor in remote Jhilwanja Union, told AFP by telephone.
Earlier this week Bangladesh evacuated 10,000 Rohingya from around refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar because of the storms.
Aid workers said a coronavirus lockdown in the camps, following a major spike in cases, has affected rescue work as access is restricted.
About 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017 after security forces launched a clampdown that the UN has said may amount to genocide.
Thousands of people are defying a nationwide coronavirus lockdown in Bangladesh to see Rani, a 51-centimetre (20-inch) tall cow whose owners claim it is the world’s smallest.
The 23-month-old dwarf cow has become a media star with scores of newspapers and television stations throwing the spotlight on the tiny bovine at a farm near Dhaka.
Pictures of Rani on social media platforms have set off a tourist frenzy.
Despite a nationwide transport shutdown because of record coronavirus infections and deaths, people are flocking in rickshaws to the farm in Charigram, 30 kilometres (19 miles) southwest of Dhaka.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life. Never,” said Rina Begum, 30, who came from a neighbouring town.
Rani is 66 centimetres (26 inches) long and weighs only 26 kilograms (57 pounds) but the owners say it is 10 centimetres shorter than the smallest cow in Guinness World Records.
M.A. Hasan Howlader, manager of Shikor Agro farm, used a tape measure to show dozens of onlookers how Rani dwarfs her closest rival Manikyam, a cow in the Indian state Kerala that currently holds the world record.
“People come long distances despite the coronavirus lockdown. Most want to take selfies with Rani,” Howlader told AFP, adding Guinness World Records had promised a decision in three months.
“More than 15,000 people have come to see Rani in the past three days alone,” he said.
“Honestly speaking, we are tired.”
Guinness World Records said Manikyam, from the Vechur breed, was 61 centimetres high in June 2014.
Rani is a Bhutti, or Bhutanese, cow which is prized for its meat in Bangladesh. The other Bhuttis on the farm are twice Rani’s size.
“We did not expect such huge interest. We did not think people would leave their homes because of the worsening virus situation. But they have come here in droves,” the manager said.
Sajedul Islam, the government’s chief vet for the region, said Rani is a product of “genetic inbreeding” and was unlikely to become any bigger.
Islam said he had told the farm to restrict the tourist influx.
“I told them they should not allow so many people to crowd the farm. They may carry diseases here that threaten Rani’s health,” he said.
Thousands of people were stranded in Bangladesh’s capital on Monday as authorities halted almost all public transport ahead of a sweeping lockdown imposed to combat a deadly resurgence of Covid-19 infections.
The South Asian nation reported pandemic highs of more than 8,300 fresh infections on Monday and 119 deaths on Sunday.
Officials blame the recent spike on the highly contagious Delta variant first identified in neighbouring India.
The majority of the South Asian nation’s 168 million population will be confined to their homes by Thursday as part of the restrictions, with only essential services and some export-facing factories allowed to operate.
The government’s cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said troops would be deployed from Thursday to help enforce the lockdown.
“The armed forces will be on patrol. If anyone ignores their orders, legal action will be available to them,” he told reporters late Monday.
The lockdown announcement sparked an exodus of migrant workers from the capital Dhaka to home villages on Sunday, with tens of thousands cramming into ferries to cross a major river.
The staggered implementation of the lockdown rules left thousands of workers in Dhaka forced to walk to their offices on Monday, sometimes for hours, in the sweltering summer heat.
Large columns of people were seen walking on the main roads early Monday. Workplaces will be shut from Wednesday.
Bicycle rickshaws were allowed to operate in a last-minute government concession late Sunday, but prices soared to unaffordable levels, commuters said.
“I started walking at 7 am. I could not get any bus or any other vehicles. I can’t afford a rickshaw ride,” Shefali Begum, 60, who was going to her daughter’s home in central Dhaka, told AFP.
Restrictions on activities and movement were imposed across Bangladesh in mid-April as cases and deaths jumped to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.
Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, sparking the harsher restrictions.
The country has reported nearly 900,000 infections and just over 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to possible underreporting.
Health officials across the world have been alarmed by the rapid spread of the Delta variant, now reported by the WHO to have reached at least 85 countries.
More than two-thirds of new virus cases in Bangladesh’s capital were of the Delta variant, a recent study by the independent Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research reported.
“The rapid surge of the coronavirus cases in the country is due mostly to the Delta variant,” health services department spokesman Robed Amind told AFP.
He said studies outside of Dhaka have also shown the spread of the variant in border districts and the second-largest city Chittagong.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled Bangladesh’s capital Sunday on the eve of a tightened lockdown that will curtail most economic activity and confine people to their homes as coronavirus infections soar.
Restrictions on activities and movement have been in place since mid-April as cases and deaths jumped.
Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, with just over 6,000 daily cases on Thursday and 108 deaths on Friday, according to the health ministry — the highest in more than two months.
The resurgence has prompted the government to toughen restrictions in stages from Monday, with economic activity — including shops, markets, transportation and offices — to shut down by Thursday.
People will be ordered to stay at homes while only emergency services and export-oriented factories continue operations.
The coming closure has sparked an exodus from Dhaka, the capital.
One protester was killed and at least three others are in critical condition after police in Bangladesh opened fire on a violent protest against coronavirus restrictions, officials said.
The incident took place Monday in the central town of Saltha in Faridpur district, where rumours had spread that a man at a market was injured while police were enforcing Covid-19 controls as cases spike nationwide.
Thousands of people took to the streets in anger.
One group hurled bricks at a police station, vandalised government offices and torched an officer’s home and two government cars, police said.
A police spokesman said officers opened fire “in self-defence” after the station was attacked.
A 20-year-old Islamic student was killed and at least seven people injured, including three police, according to Suminur Rahman, Faridpur deputy chief of police.
Staff at state-run Faridpur Medical College Hospital said three people with gunshot wounds are in critical condition.
“One of them was hit in his buttocks, another in his chest and the third person was shot in both legs,” Abdul Matin, a doctor at the emergency ward, told AFP.
Police said supporters of the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam group had joined the attack.
Hefazat members were involved in deadly clashes during demonstrations against a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month.
Bangladesh on Monday instituted a seven-day nationwide lockdown after 7,087 people tested positive for coronavirus on Sunday, the highest daily total recorded in the South Asian nation.
All domestic buses, ferries, trains and flights have been suspended, and shops and malls have been shut. A nighttime curfew is also in effect.
Hundreds of shopkeepers in the capital, Dhaka, protested the lockdown, saying it would hurt their businesses.
The death toll from a ferry disaster in Bangladesh jumped to 26 on Monday after rescuers pulled the vessel out of the water and found more bodies inside, officials said Monday.
The sunken ferry was extracted from the heavily polluted Shitalakshya River in the central district of Narayanganj as hundreds of onlookers and relatives of the missing watched from the shore.
“We have found 21 bodies today after the ship was pulled out of the water,” local official Mustain Billah told AFP.
The one-and-a-half storey Sabit Al Hasan sank after it collided with a bigger cargo vessel on Sunday.
The vessel had departed less than an hour earlier from Narayanganj, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Dhaka, officials told AFP.
A local police inspector said the ferry was packed with passengers after the government confirmed it would impose a seven-day lockdown across the country to combat the recent rise in coronavirus cases.
Billah said the ship was carrying at least 46 people when it left.
“Some 20 people swam to safety after the vessel sank,” he told AFP, adding several people could still be missing. “We have ordered a probe into the accident,” he said.
Local police chief Dipak Saha said rescue efforts were hampered for hours by a powerful storm that hit after the accident.
Under the lockdown, all domestic travel services — including buses, ferries, trains and flights — will be suspended from Monday.
Shops and malls will be shut for a week and a night curfew in effect.
Public and private sector businesses were told to only have a skeleton crew in their offices.
Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, a delta nation crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers.
Millions of people are heavily reliant on ferries for transport, particularly in the country’s southern coastal region, but the vessels have a poor safety record.
Experts blame poor maintenance, lax safety standards at shipyards and overcrowding for many of the accidents.
In June last year, a ferry sank in Dhaka after it was hit from behind by another ferry, killing at least 32 people.
In February 2015, at least 78 people died when an overcrowded ship collided with a cargo boat in a central Bangladesh river.
The number of accidents has dropped sharply in recent years as authorities crack down on unseaworthy vessels.
Fifteen people have died and 400 are missing after a huge fire destroyed the shanty homes of tens of thousands of Rohingya in the world’s biggest refugee settlement in Bangladesh, the UN said Tuesday.
Nearly one million of the persecuted Muslim minority — many of whom escaped a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar that UN investigators concluded was executed with “genocidal intent” — live in squalid conditions at the network of camps in the southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
The fire broke out Monday and left at least 50,000 people homeless as it ripped through their flimsy bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters, according to police and aid groups. Terrified families fled with whatever they could carry, with distraught parents separated from their children in the rush.
It was just the latest blaze in recent weeks — and the biggest since 2017. Bangladesh has ordered a probe.
“People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies,” said Aminul Haq, a refugee.
“I couldn’t save any of our belongings as I was busy saving my children from the fire. We simply ran away from our house,” said another, Nasima Khatun.
Johannes Van der Klaauw, the UN Refugee Agency’s representative in Bangladesh, said that so far it has confirmed 15 people dead, 560 injured, 400 missing and at least 10,000 shelters destroyed.
But Bangladesh police put the death toll lower at 11.
“What we have seen in this fire is something we have never seen before in these camps. It is massive. It is devastating,” Van der Klaauw told reporters in Geneva via video link.
Officials said the blaze appeared to have started in one of the 34 camps — which span about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) — before spreading rapidly to three other sites despite desperate efforts to put out the flames.
Thick columns of smoke could be seen billowing from blazing shanties in videos shared on social media, as hundreds of firefighters and aid workers pulled refugees to safety.
Firefighters finally brought the blaze under control around midnight.
– Unable to flee –
The cause of the fire was not known but police inspector Gazi Salahuddin said it spread after gas cylinders used for cooking exploded.
Mohammad Yasin, a Rohingya helping fight the fire, told AFP the blaze raged for more than 10 hours and was the worst he had seen.
A volunteer for Save the Children, Tayeba Begum, said “children were running, crying for their families”.
Refugees International said in a statement: “Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps.”
This was echoed by Myo Min Khan, a Rohingya, who wrote on Facebook: “We were unable to flee because of the fence, my youngest daughter got injured badly.”
AFP was not independently able to verify the claims about the fence.
Police rejected the accusation, saying only a tiny part of the camp was fenced.
“This tragedy is an awful reminder of the vulnerable position of Rohingya refugees who are caught between increasingly precarious conditions in Bangladesh and the reality of a homeland now ruled by the military responsible for the genocide that forced them to flee,” Refugees International said.
– Third in four days –
The UN’s International Organization for Migration said it has pledged $1 million to relief efforts but a further $20 million would be required to react to the most urgent needs.
It was the third blaze to hit the camps in four days, fire brigade official Sikder, who goes by only one name, told AFP.
Two big fires also hit the camps in January, leaving thousands homeless and gutting four UNICEF schools.
Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, Saad Hammadi, tweeted that the “frequency of fire in the camps is too coincidental, especially when outcomes of previous investigations into the incidents are not known and they keep repeating”.
Rohingya leader Sayed Ullah demanded an immediate probe. “It is not clear why these fire incidents are happening repeatedly in the camps. It needs proper and complete investigation,” he said.
The government has meanwhile been pushing for the refugees to be relocated to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.
So far, just 13,000 Rohingya have been moved to the island, which critics say is prone to flooding and in the path of deadly cyclones, with many refugees reluctant to volunteer to go.
Fourteen jihadists were sentenced to death in Bangladesh on Tuesday for attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina more than two decades ago, a prosecutor said.
The 2000 bomb plot was one of several attempts on Hasina’s life in a wave of violence by Islamic extremists who were angry at her secular stance at the time.
Since then, a major crackdown against homegrown Islamist groups has seen more than 100 extremists killed in raids by police and more than 1,000 suspected militants arrested.
A fast-track court handed down death sentences to all 14 accused — five of them absconding — after they were found guilty of sedition and criminal conspiracy, prosecutor Abu Abdullah Bhuilyan told AFP.
They planted two bombs in the grounds of a college where Hasina was due to address a rally. The devices were discovered and defused.
“They are Islamist extremists belonging to the HuJI (Harkat ul Jihad al Islami) and JMB (Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh),” he said, referring to local extremist outfits blamed for a series of deadly bombings and grenade attacks in the 2010s.
Mufti Abdul Hannan, the Afghan-trained leader of the Bangladesh chapter of HuJI, and two of his associates were executed in 2017 for an attempt to kill the British High Commissioner in Dhaka.
Hasina’s government also executed five top leaders of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, between 2013 and 2016 over war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
Prosecutor Bhuiyan said two among the 14 sentenced to death are brothers of HuJI leader Hannan, and another his brother-in-law.
Bangladesh sentences scores of people to death every year but only a handful of people are executed.
Bangladesh has hanged 23 people since 2013 while around 1,750 are on death row, according to a local rights group.
A Bangladesh court jailed 50 opposition activists on Thursday for up to 10 years for an attack on the current prime minister’s motorcade nearly two decades ago, a prosecutor said.
Among the defendants was a former member of parliament for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which was in power at the time of the attack.
In 2002, a motorcade accompanying Sheikh Hasina, who was then the opposition leader for Awami League, was attacked with rocks, batons and machetes, prosecutors said.
“Three men including the ex-MP were given 10 years in jail and the rest got various jail terms from four and a half years,” prosecutor Shaheen Mirdha told AFP, after the sentences were delivered by a district court in the southern city of Satkhira.
Twelve of the convicts are currently on the run.
The prosecutor said the attack was one of many assassination attempts on Hasina, who was unhurt.
Several of her Awami League followers and journalists were injured.
The opposition BNP made no immediate comment.
The BNP leader, Hasina’s arch-rival Khaleda Zia, is serving a 17-year jail term for corruption imposed in 2018. Zia was prime minister at the time of the 2002 attack.
The BNP has accused the government of detaining tens of thousands of its activists using trumped-up charges in the 12 years that Hasina has been in power.
Tarique Rahman, Zia’s son who lives in London, was sentenced in 2018 to life imprisonment for his role in a grenade attack on a Hasina rally in 2004. Nineteen people were sentenced to death in the case.
Bangladesh transported more than 1,600 Rohingya refugees to a low-lying island on Friday in the first phase of a controversial planned relocation of 100,000 people.
Almost a million Rohingya — most of whom fled a military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar three years ago — live in squalid camps in southeastern Bangladesh. Any return to Myanmar appears unlikely for now.
Dhaka wants to move 100,000 of the refugees to Bhashan Char, a silt island that critics say is prone to flooding and in the path of cyclones that frequently wreak havoc in the region.
Rights groups have alleged that many of those sent in the first wave on Friday were coerced into going with threats or sweeteners.
This was borne out by some family members that AFP spoke to at camps in the Cox’s Bazar district on Thursday as they said tearful goodbyes to their relatives.
“They beat my son mercilessly and even smashed his teeth so that he agreed to go to the island,” said Sufia Khatun, 60, who came to see off her son and five other relatives.
At the United Nations, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said there had been “some reports from the camps that some refugees may be feeling pressured into relocating” or had changed their minds about going.
“If so, they should be allowed to remain in the camps in Cox’s Bazar,” he said.
But Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen called the claims “a damn lie”, and said the facilities on the island were “much better” than in the camps.
‘All modern amenities’
Bangladesh has spent some $400 million from its own coffers building shelters and a nine-foot (three-metre) flood embankment around the facilities.
The government said the facilities are “strongly built with concrete foundation which can withstand natural disasters such as cyclones and tidal waves.”
The island “has all modern amenities, year-round fresh water, (a) beautiful lake and proper infrastructure and enhanced facilities,” the foreign ministry said Friday.
“These include uninterrupted supply of electricity and water, agricultural plots, cyclone shelters, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, recreation and learning centres, playgrounds, etc,” it said.
Bangladeshi authorities say the relocation will ease congestion in the vast network of camps where deadly landslides — as well as violence by drug gangs and extremists — are common.
But it is unclear whether the refugees will be able to leave if they wish to.
The United Nations office in Bangladesh said it had been prevented from independently assessing the “safety, feasibility and sustainability” of the island as a place to live.
The UN spokesman in New York echoed that claim, saying: “We have not been involved.”
“Any movement of refugees needs to be done voluntarily and in safety and dignity,” Dujarric said.
Mohammad Jubaer, 28, who was on one of the ships with three family members on the three-hour sea journey from Chittagong to the island on Friday, said he was happy to go.
“I hope there will be enough work for me in the island. I wish they would also bring my brother and his family to the island,” he told AFP by phone.