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Myanmar junta accused of blocking aid to Cyclone Mocha-battered Rohingyas as death toll climbs

New Delhi — The death toll from Cyclone Mocha's frontal assault on Myanmar and Bangladesh over the weekend had risen from six to at least 21 by Wednesday, with some unofficial reports suggesting the real toll could be over 200.

All the deaths have been reported in Myanmar's coastal Rakhine state, on the Bay of Bengal, which took the brunt of the strongest tropical cyclone so far this year. Mocha was as powerful as a category-5 hurricane.

A Rohingya woman sits by her destroyed house at Ohn Taw Chay refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar, May 16, 2023, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha's landfall. SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP/Getty

Some deaths were also reported, but not yet confirmed, in Myanmar's Sagaing and Magway regions.

The storm's high winds and heavy downpours destroyed hundreds of homes and shelters across Myanmar and toppled trees, power and communication lines, with most of the damage reported in Rakhine, an area home to an estimated 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims. The Muslim minority has been persecuted by successive Myanmar governments, which have refused to recognize the Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar.

Varying death tolls, and Rohingyas in the crosshairs

For years, thousands have lived in makeshift shelters in Rakhine.

About 1 million more Rohingyas, who fled military persecution in Myanmar in 2017, live in challenging conditions in the world's largest refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh. The sprawling refugee camp there, at Cox's Bazar, was also in the predicted path of Cyclone Mocha, but it was spared at the last moment by a change in the storm's track.

Deadly fire tears through Rohingya refugee camp 01:52

Not a single death has been reported in Cox's Bazar, which, like Myanmar, ordered tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas to evacuate ahead of the storm's hit, but dozens of tents and other shelters there were destroyed.

Myanmar's ruling military regime had confirmed the deaths of 21 people as of Wednesday. But unconfirmed reports put the death toll much higher. In Rakhine alone, at least 100 people have died and many more were still missing, the Reuters news agency reported, citing people in the region.

Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG) — a group of lawmakers living in exile who oppose the junta that seized full control in a 2021 military coup — and representatives of ethnic minority groups have said that at least 200 people were killed  by the storm in Myanmar.

Damage caused by Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe, in Myanmar's Rakhine state, is seen on May 17, 2023, several days after the storm made landfall in Myanmar. SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP/Getty

"The number of confirmed deaths is 200 and more than 200 others are missing," Aung Kyaw Moe, NUG's Advisor at the Ministry of Human Rights, told CBS News.

CBS News could not verify the figure independently, and reliable information has been difficult to come by as the cyclone crippled Myanmar's communications infrastructure. As phone and internet lines are restored, the official death toll is likely to increase.

"Assessments of the extent of the damage in Myanmar are challenging, largely due to interrupted transport and telecommunication services… however, early reports show that children were reportedly among the victims of the storm," the United Nations children's agency UNICEF said in a statement.

Victims cut off by alleged aid "blockade"

Several areas in Myanmar remained cut off Wednesday, several days after the cyclone made landfall, due to collapsed bridges, washed away roads, fallen trees and flooded streets. Emergency aid still had not reached the worst affected areas, and aid agencies warned that could result in more deaths.

The National Unity Government accused the ruling junta of blocking aid agencies from going into the Rakhine region.

"No aid agency is able to deliver aid because of the military blockade," the NUG's Moe told CBS News on Wednesday.

There have even been reports of the military attacking Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine as the storm approached, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

UNICEF warned that millions of vulnerable children and families were at risk in the aftermath of the cyclone, saying: "timely and urgent humanitarian access to the affected areas in both countries is critical."

"Some of the world's most vulnerable children and families are, yet again, at the sharp end of a crisis they didn't create. The areas hit hardest by the storm are home to communities already living through conflict, poverty, instability, and climate and environmental shocks," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

Climate change linked to more powerful storms

Scientists have linked the increasing frequency and power of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal to rising temperatures in the Indian ocean.

"Warmer waters provide more fuel for storms, and they also increase evaporation into the air. That additional water vapor also provides fuel for the storm as well as more moisture for rainfall," Dr. Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Massachusetts-based Woodwell Climate organization, told CBS News. "As oceans continue to warm, we are seeing an increase in strong-category storms (Category 3-5) and more cases of rapid intensification, such as Cyclone Mocha."

How climate change affects hurricanes 05:34

"This kind of rapid intensification has become frequent recently both in the Arabian Sea as well as in the Bay of Bengal," Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and a lead author for the U.N.'s international climate change panel, told CBS News.

That means millions of people who live along the coasts of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India are more vulnerable than ever to more, and more powerful cyclones.

In 2020, at least 80 people were killed and dozens of homes destroyed as Cyclone Amphan tore through India and Bangladesh. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit the southern coastal regions of Myanmar, killing almost 140,000 people and affecting millions of people living along the Irrawaddy Delta.

"It's not too late to lessen the impacts of climate change for our children and theirs, but we must act boldly and quickly, where the 'we' is the developed world, who are responsible for creating the vast majority of the crises," Francis told CBS News.

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