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At the scene of the accident, witnesses and survivors said the boat overturned just yards from the coast after apparently hitting a submerged object and was later washed ashore in two parts along with the victims' bodies.
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh: At least 15 people, mostly children, drowned and scores more were feared missing when a boat carrying Rohingya refugees capsized off Bangladesh on Thursday (Sep 28), police said, as the number of people fleeing violence in Myanmar topped half a million.
Witnesses and survivors said the boat overturned just yards from the coast in rough waters, after it was lashed by torrential rain and high winds.
"They drowned before our eyes. Minutes later, the waves washed the bodies to the beach," said Mohammad Sohel, a local shopkeeper.
The tragedy is the latest in a series of deadly accidents as desperate refugees surge across the border into Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar, where the country's military has been accused of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.
It came as the United Nations, which has registered more than 500,000 refugees in recent weeks, said a planned visit to Myanmar's conflict-battered Rakhine state had been postponed Thursday due to bad weather, thwarting efforts to reach the isolated epicentre of the violence.
Local police inspector Moahmmed Kai-Kislu told us 15 bodies including at least 10 children and four women had so far been washed ashore, and there were fears the number could rise still further.
The International Organisation for Migration, which is leading the relief effort in the area, told us that one survivor said the boat sank as it tried to dock at a place that was out of sight of security forces.
"It's a very sad story. There were a hundred Rohingya on board when it sank," IOM spokesperson Hala Jaber told us.
"As (the captain) was trying to dock, the boat capsized and it was not far from the shore but it was far enough and was still deep," she said, adding that search efforts were ongoing.
One distraught survivor told us that his wife and one of their children had been killed when the ship sank.
"The boat hit something underground as it came close to the beach. Then it overturned," said Nurus Salam, who had set off set off for Bangladesh from a coastal village in Myanmar late Wednesday with his family.
Another survivor seen weeping on the beach told us at the scene that her parents and children were missing.
The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) said 27 survivors had been located so far, including eight women and seven children.
"It is saddening that refugees fleeing violence drowned in sight of the land and safety they were desperately searching for," said UNHCR's director for the Asia and Pacific region, Indrika Ratwatte.
"The number of women and children involved highlights how the most vulnerable are often the most affected in these tragedies."
The huge influx of Rohingya to Bangladesh - the largest mass movement of refugees in the region in decades - was put at 501,800 by the UN on Thursday.
It said the flow of new arrivals had slowed, with the new figure - up from around 480,000 - due mainly to including refugees not previously counted.
The exodus began on Aug 25 when attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts prompted a Myanmar military crackdown.
It has created a humanitarian crisis as the government and aid agencies struggle to provide food, clean water and shelter.
Those who have made it to Bangladesh have brought with them harrowing accounts of murder and villages torched by Myanmar soldiers and mobs of ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists.
Rakhine, long a cauldron of ethnic and religious tensions, has been scarred by seething animosity since severe bloodshed erupted across the state in 2012.
The violence-hit northern part of the state is heavily controlled by Myanmar's army, making it difficult to assess the situation there.
The UN has pushed for access since humanitarian organisations were forced to pull out in late August when the military launched operations against Rohingya rebels.
Police in Bangladesh say over a hundred Rohingya have drowned trying to reach the country's shores in small fishing boats often woefully inadequate for the rough waters, many of the victims are children unable to swim.
Images circulated by Myanmar authorities on Wednesday showed hundreds of people waiting to cross the Naf River that divides the two countries.