COX’S BAZAR/OSLO - More than a quarter of a million mostly Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh since fresh violence erupted in Myanmar last October, the United Nations said Thursday, as more bodies washed up a day after boats sank attempting to cross the river that divides the two countries.

In the last two weeks alone 164,000 mostly Rohingya civilians have fled to Bangladesh, overwhelming refugee camps that were already bursting at the seams and triggering warnings of a humanitarian crisis.

Scores more have died trying to flee the fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where witnesses say entire villages have been burned to the ground since Rohingya militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on August 25, prompting a military-led crackdown.

Police in Bangladesh say they have recovered the bodies of 17 people, many of them children, who drowned when at least three boats packed with Rohingya refugees sank at the mouth of the Naf river that runs along the border. Bangladesh border guards say desperate Rohingya are attempting to cross the river using small fishing trawlers that are dangerously overcrowded.

At least five have capsized leaving more than 60 people dead, police and border guards say.

Rohingya refugee Tayeba Khatun said she and her family had waited four days for a place on a boat to take them to Bangladesh after fleeing her township in Rakhine.

“People were squeezing into whatever space they could find on the rickety boats. I saw two of those boats sink,” she told AFP. “Most managed to swim ashore but the children were missing.”

Those flocking into Bangladesh have brought with them harrowing testimony of murder, rape and widespread arson by Myanmar’s army.

Most have walked for days to reach Bangladesh and the United Nations says many are sick, exhausted and in desperate need of shelter, food and water.

Existing camps which hosted around 400,000 refugees before the latest influx are now completely overwhelmed, leaving tens of thousands of new arrivals with nowhere to shelter from the monsoon rains.

Mazor Mustafa, a Bangladeshi businessman handing out food and rehydration fluids, said the situation was getting worse as more people arrived.

“It is not at all enough food,” he told AFP of the ration kits being distributed. “These people are hungry, starving to death together.”

The latest figures mean that nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims have fled since fighting first broke out last October.

Impoverished Bangladesh initially tried to block them from entering, but has now given up attempting to stem the tide.

UN investigators have said a military crackdown that followed ambushes by Rohingya militants in October last year may amount to ethnic cleansing.

The recent fighting is the fiercest in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state, in years.

Meanwhile, thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for the Nobel committee to revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace prize over the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslims.

But the Norwegian Nobel committee has ruled out any such move, saying only that the work which led to the awarding of the prize was taken into account.

The Change.Org petition has gathered over 365,000 signatures as of Thursday, reflecting growing outrage over a massive security sweep in Rakhine state by Myanmar forces after a series of deadly ambushes by Rohingya militants.

“The de facto ruler of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi has done virtually nothing to stop this crime against humanity in her country,” the petition says.

Suu Kyi was awarded the prize in 1991, while under house arrest at the hands of Myanmar’s military junta, from which she was released in 2010. She then went on to lead her party through the country’s first credible elections since independence.

But her government has faced international condemnation for the army’s response to the crisis as refugees arrive in Bangladesh with stories of murder, rape and burned villages at the hands of soldiers.

The United Nations said Thursday that about 164,000 mostly Rohingya refugees have escaped to Bangladesh in the past two weeks, meaning more than a quarter of a million have fled since fighting broke out in October.

Suu Kyi lashed out this week at what she called “a huge iceberg of misinformation” over the crisis, “with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.

In Oslo, Olav Njolstad, head of the Nobel Institute, said it was impossible to strip a Nobel laureate of an award once it has been bestowed.

“Neither Alfred Nobel’s will nor the statutes of the Nobel Foundation provide for the possibility that a Nobel Prize - whether for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature or peace - can be revoked,” he told AFP.

“Only the efforts made by a laureate before the attribution of a prize are evaluated by the Nobel committee,” he said, and not any subsequent actions.

 

Myanmar said Thursday that 6,600 Rohingya homes and 201 non-Muslim homes had been burned to the ground since August 25.

They added some 30 civilians had been killed - seven Rohingyas, seven Hindus and 16 Rakhine Buddhists - in the fighting.

Myanmar’s army has previously said around 430 people had been killed in the fighting, including militants and soldiers.