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Search for 50 passengers called off after people-smuggling boat sinks off Bangladesh

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Bangladesh authorities called of searches at sea Monday for about 50 passengers missing from a people-smuggling boat that sank off the southern coast near Myanmar waters, killing at least five people, police said.

The wooden fishing boat went down Sunday near Saint Martin’s island, about 120 kilometers south of the coastal resort town of Cox’s Bazar, said local police officer Mohammad Jasimuddin, who had been coordinating the rescue effort.

Survivors said the boat was carrying more than 100 people, Jasimuddin said. Five bodies have been recovered so far, Jasimuddin said.

He said about 50 people were still unaccounted for, and that about 50 others swam ashore or were rescued by fishing boats.

One survivor, Hashem Mollah, told police that he and his cousin had each paid 20,000 takas (US$298) to a trafficking syndicate to carry them to Thailand, from where they had planned to travel to Malaysia for better jobs, Jasimuddin said.

The Bangladeshi villager said he swam for nearly three hours to shore after the overcrowded boat sank in deep seas. Many others did not make it, he said.

Jasimuddin said police were trying to find the traffickers, based on information from survivors.

Searches for the missing by police and coast guard speed boats were called off late Monday, he said. However, he said rescuers were still looking out for any more bodies or survivors along the shoreline.

Jasimuddin said the passengers were poor Bangladeshi villagers, and Myanmar refugees from camps at Cox’s Bazar, 300 kilometers south of the national capital, Dhaka.

Several thousand Myanmar refugees, mostly Muslims known as Rohingyas, have fled to Bangladesh over the years, claiming persecution by Myanmar’s military junta and economic hardships.

In the last three months, police and the coast guard have arrested about 500 people – Bangladeshis and Myanmar refugees – in the same waters, mainly on human trafficking or illegal entry charges.

Boat and ship accidents are common in Bangladesh, a delta nation with about 250 rivers. They are often blamed on poor navigation, unfit vessels and lax enforcement of safety regulations.

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