DHAKA (AFP/Reuters) - About 85 people are missing after an overloaded boat carrying Rohingya refugees towards Malaysia sank off Bangladesh early on Wednesday, the second such tragedy in less than a fortnight, officials said.

Bangladesh Border Guard commander Lieutenant Colonel Zahid Hasan said the wooden vessel was carrying around 110 passengers when it went down 15 kilometres (nine miles) off the southern district of Cox’s Bazaar.

“We have now rescued 25 survivors with the help of local fishermen and a search and rescue operation is underway,” Hasan told AFP. “The boat was heading to Malaysia illegally,” he added. Hasan confirmed that at least two of those who had been rescued were Rohingya and that they were all being kept in custody.

The latest tragedy comes after a boat carrying some 135 passengers, mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees who had fled unrest in neighbouring Myanmar, sank in the Bay of Bengal on October 28. Only around half a dozen made it to safety.

Hasan said that the survivors of Wednesday’s accident had either managed to be picked up by passing fishing boats or were found floating in the water by the rescue teams.

He said the wooden motorboat had a capacity of 70 passengers. “After the October 28 accident, we prevented another boat carrying nine Rohingya including women and children on November 2. And after that, this tragedy happens today,” he said.

Speaking to AFP by phone, one 30-year old survivor, Zamir Hossain said there were seven or eight women on board the boat.

“I spoke with one woman who told me that she wanted to work after going to Malaysia,” Hossain said.

“The boat capsized after one passenger fell from the boat into the sea and the boat turned abruptly in a bid to rescue him.”

Coastguards said that they were yet to find any bodies and that bad weather and heavy rain had made the rescue effort difficult.

“I have spoken with the survivors who told me that they set sail around midnight and the boat sank around four hours after,” the Bangladesh government’s chief administrator in the area, Shamsul Islam, told AFP.

“This is another case of an illegal bid to reach Malaysia. The middlemen took money from these people, promising them to get to the country,” he said adding that most survivors were from the Teknaf area of Cox’s Bazaar.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar in past decades to escape persecution, often heading to neighbouring Bangladesh, and recent outbreaks of violence, in June and October, have triggered another exodus.

Since the unrest erupted, Bangladesh has been turning away boatloads of fleeing Rohingya.

The policy has been criticised by the United Nations but Bangladesh said it was already burdened with an estimated 300,000 of the minority group.

The stream of Rohingyas trying to leave Myanmar has intensified this year because of violence between the Muslim community in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and Buddhists.

Nearly 200 people have been killed in intermittent clashes since June and tens of thousands, most of them Rohingyas, have been displaced.

Myanmar regards the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.

Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992 and regularly turns back people trying to slip out of Myanmar. The United Nations calls the Rohingyas “virtually friendless”.