Massive fire sweeps through Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh

Blaze at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar destroys hundreds of tents, as well as a number of health centres and other facilities.

Smoke rises following a fire at the Rohingya refugee camp in Balukhali [Shafiqur Rahman/AP]

A massive fire has swept through a Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, gutting hundreds of tents and a number of health centres and other facilities, according to officials and witnesses.

The blaze at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar district erupted in the late afternoon on Monday and spread quickly through at least four blocks, according to Mohammad Shamsud Douza, additional commissioner of the government’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC).

No casualties were immediately reported, but deaths and injuries were feared.

“It has been a challenging situation because many of these huts are in a hilly terrain where fire trucks can’t have access,” said Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. “There is no kind of water system within the camp area to douse the fire.”

Sources at the camp told Al Jazeera that the fire was brought under control more than four hours after it erupted, Chowdhury said.

Louise Donovan, spokesperson of the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), said firefighters and rescue and response teams were at the scene trying to control the blaze and prevent it from spreading further.

“All partners are providing support together with the RRRC and emergency services,” she said, adding that humanitarian partners have mobilised hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps to support the efforts, as well as fire safety vehicles and equipment.

“So far, the fire has affected shelters, health centres, distribution points and other facilities. Volunteers are supporting those affected,” she added.

Rohingya refugees watch smoke rising in the camp [Shafiqur Rahman/AP]

Witnesses at the camp said the fire started at about 3:30pm (10:30 GMT). Some said they believed it started from a liquefied petroleum gas cylinder explosion, though this has not yet been confirmed.

“The locals first tried to douse the fire on their own. But soon it started to spread rapidly,” Lalu Majhi, a Rohingya leader from Balukhali camp, told Al Jazeera.

“We immediately tried to evacuate the N8 block of the camp where the fire had started.”

Atiqur Rahman, commander of the 14th armed police battalion posted near Balukhali camp, told Al Jazeera security forces “are helping to relocate the affected refugees from the camp”.

“We have got the report of fire and we responded to the incident. We are trying to control the blaze,” Mohammad Shamsud Douza, additional commissioner of the RRRC, told Anadolu Agency.

Mayyu Khan, a Rohingya community leader, told Anadolu Agency that “more than 700 tents” had been gutted.

In January, a fire swept through another Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar that left thousands without shelter.

According to the UNHCR, more than 550 shelters – home to at least 3,500 people – were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze at Nayapara camp, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organisation.

In recent weeks, the Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 in a military-led crackdown the UN said was executed with genocidal intent – charges Myanmar denies.

Faisal Mahmud contributed to this report

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies