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Dozens fleeing storm feared dead after boat capsizes off Myanmar

Around 100 people trying to escape a storm are believed to have drowned after their boat capsized off the coast of Myanmar. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

SITTWE, Myanmar -- A boat carrying about 100 Rohingya Muslims capsized off western Myanmar with many feared drowned at the start of a mass evacuation from low-lying regions ahead of an approaching storm, a U.N. official said on Tuesday.

The boat struck rocks off Pauktaw township in Rakhine State and sank late Monday, Barbara Manzi, head of the Myanmar office of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

She said an unknown number of people were missing.

A military intelligence officer said at least 50 people drowned when the boat went down at around midnight. It was one of six leaving Pauktaw, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Kirsten Mildren, a spokeswoman for OCHA in Bangkok, said she understood that a larger boat was towing two smaller, wooden boats without engines, and that 100 to 150 people were on the three vessels.

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

A boy dismantles his tent before moving to safer ground as a storm approaches Sittwe, Myanmar, on Tuesday.

"We understand that yesterday evening they went out with the approval of government officials. This was part of an official government evacuation plan, although the boats were not government boats. They were moving from a low-lying area to a safer area," she said.

The approaching storm is a tropical depression named Mahasen, which is expected to strengthen into a cyclone.

Forecasts by the U.S. Navy's Joint Warning Center show the storm making its way north over the Bay of Bengal. It is expected to make landfall on Thursday near Chittagong in Bangladesh before moving into neighboring Myanmar.

It threatens a region of Myanmar where about 140,000 victims of ethnic and religious unrest are living in camps. The United Nations warned last week that Myanmar could face a "humanitarian catastrophe" if people were not evacuated.

The United Nations said about 69,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were living in "precarious" conditions at risk of flooding and other damage during the rainy season, which begins this month and continues until around September. Mahasen could bring "life-threatening conditions," it said.

The evacuations, a combined effort between the government and aid agencies, are seen as a test of Myanmar's willingness to assist stateless Rohingya Muslims, an impoverished and long-persecuted people who bore the brunt of sectarian violence in Rakhine State last year.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. They face a growing anti-Muslim campaign led by radical Buddhist monks.

In 2008 a cyclone swept across Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, south of the old capital, Yangon, killing up to 140,000 people.

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