A boat carrying at least 70 Muslim Rohingya capsized and sank Sunday off the western coast of Burma, also known as Myanmar, an aid worker said. Only eight survivors have been found.
The boat was in the Bay of Bengal and headed for Bangladesh when it went down early Sunday, said Abdul Melik, who works for a humanitarian organization in the region.
The incident comes after the United Nations warned that an annual and often deadly exodus of desperate people from Rakhine state appears to have begun. The exodus usually kicks off in November, when seas begin to calm following the annual monsoon.
As many as 1,500 people have fled in the last week, Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees, said at a press briefing Saturday in Geneva.
He said the agency had received several reports of drownings and was seeking details from authorities.
Boat broke apart 4 hours later
In Sunday's incident, Melik said the wooden boat, which was carrying at least 70 Rohingya from Ohn Taw Gyi village, left at around 3 a.m. local time and broke apart about four hours later. Women, children and babies were among those on board.
Family members and friends were scouring the Bay of Bengal and coastlines for survivors, but so far only eight survivors have been found, he said.
It was not immediately clear whether any bodies had been recovered.
Burma, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, has been gripped by sectarian violence in the last 18 months, leaving more than 240 people dead and causing 250,000 to flee from their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, a long persecuted Muslim minority in the country, with Buddhist mobs chasing them down with machetes, iron chains and bamboo clubs.
The UN says it expects this year's exodus to be on one of the biggest on record because of the violence.