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DHAKA —A massive fire broke out in the middle of a refugee camp occupied by Myanmar Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh, leaving thousands homeless under the open sky, officials said Sunday.
At least 1,000 shanties, mostly made of bamboo and tarpaulin in the Balukhali refugee camp, were gutted by fire, Bangladesh's deputy refugee commissioner, Shamsud Douza, said.
"This is however an estimated number," he told VOA.
The U.N. refugee agency in Bangladesh later said in a tweet that Rohingya refugee volunteers trained on firefighting and local fire services controlled the fire.
The number of casualties remained unknown although officials said they managed to take many people away to safety.
Some refugees, though, said they had missing family members.
One such refugee, Mohammad Saiful, said he was out collecting relief supplies from a distribution center a few blocks away when the fire started.
"I managed to find my wife and four children but still have not found my mother," the 42-year-old told VOA.
Another refugee, Nur Mohammad, said his two children were missing amid the chaos.
Refugee community leader Sawyed Ullah said more than 3,000 shanties had been gutted as the hilly camps were difficult for firefighters to reach.
"It [fire incidents] is happening repeatedly. People are becoming refugees twice - driven away from home first and then homeless within the camp," he told VOA.
Fire station operator Shahedul Islam said seven firefighting units rushed to the overcrowded camps.
"The reason behind the fire is still unknown. We will be able to tell once the fire comes under complete control," he said.
Refugee Commissioner Mizanur Rahman said they were at the rescue stage of the operation and later will set up an investigation committee.
"These camps are already prone to fire hazard. And during this time of the year, the fire spreads very quickly," he said.
This was the third major fire in the last three years. In 2021, a fire killed at least 15 and left 50,000 homeless for days.
Last March, a huge blaze killed a minor and left some 2,000 people homeless.
The commissioner said fire incidents are becoming very common in the densely populated camps and he feared potential sabotage.
"There are groups within the camps who often fight between themselves to establish power over each other. It is a security threat and this fire could be their work," he told VOA.
He said the intelligence agencies were probing the matters and one person was detained as a suspect in this regard from the camp.
At least 740,000 Rohingya Muslims arrived in the already overcrowded Bangladeshi refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district in 2017. They were fleeing fatal violence involving security forces and Buddhist militias in the northern Rakhine district of majority Buddhist Myanmar.
Nearly 1.1 million refugees are now living in the squalid spread of a 28-square-kilometer camp that was once a sanctuary for rare Asian wild elephants.
Barred from regular occupations by Dhaka, many Rohingya often become desperate for a better life and become involved with criminal activity.
(Monir Uddin in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh contributed to this report.)