By Ruma Paul

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – It was soon after afternoon prayers at a mosque near western Myanmar’s Maungdaw town last month that 45-year-old Abdur said he looked up and spotted a drone hovering above. It was armed.

“Within seconds, there was an explosion, and I lost consciousness,” said the bearded farmer, asking only to use his first name because of security concerns. He said he was injured in the legs.

Abdur, who spoke to Reuters near a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, provided one of the first eyewitness accounts of the ongoing fighting in Maungdaw and of Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya fleeing the town.

“It is a horrible situation,” said Abdur, among the Rohingya who crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar in the last month, referring to Maungdaw. The father of 12 children, some of who are still in Myanmar along with his wife, lay on a bed, with bandages on his left shin and right thigh.

Sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar are already home to around one million displaced Rohingya, and Bangladesh authorities have repeatedly said they cannot accept any more refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.

Still, dozens of Rohingya looking to escape the clashes and worsening conditions in Rakhine state, where Maungdaw is located, have found their way into Bangladesh, according to six residents of the Cox’s Bazar camps.

Bangladesh’s foreign and interior ministries did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

However, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, the Bangladesh official tasked with refugee relief and repatriation, said late last month his office had received reports of Rohingya crossing over to refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area.

Myanmar was plunged into chaos in 2021 after the junta deposed the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup, sparking a protest movement that has grown to become a nationwide armed rebellion.

The Arakan Army (AA), part of the armed resistance against Myanmar’s military junta, laid siege to Maungdaw last month, after warning the town’s population – comprising some 70,000 Rohingya – to leave the coastal settlement overnight.

The junta said on June 26 that its troops are continuing to battle the AA there, describing the group as “terrorists”.

Spokesmen for the AA and the junta did not respond to calls from Reuters.

Reuters could not independently verify the current state of fighting in Maungdaw.

Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said last month that tens of thousands of Rohingya are trapped in Maungdaw: “There is nowhere to flee.”

The Rohingya have been long persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and hundreds of thousands of them fled the country in 2017 after a crackdown by the military, which was accused of having committed ethnic cleansing against the community.

‘IT ALL LOOKS BLEAK’

Abdur and another Rohingya man still inside Maungdaw described a shifting frontline spanning the town and nearby villages in bitter fighting between the AA and junta troops. The junta has accused the AA of using armed drones in the area.

After sustaining the injuries on June 19, Abdur said he rested at a relative’s house in the town and left for Bangladesh on a boat with seven other people the next night.

“I never thought of leaving my village, not even in 2017,” he said, “I don’t see any future for us. It all looks bleak.”

Inside Maungdaw, the local population has been forced to stay indoors, according to the resident still living there, who said he recently moved from the centre of the town to an area under rebel control.

“Many Rohingya are feeling hunger because they do not have enough food,” he said, asking not to be named because of fear of reprisals. He did not provide other personal details.

“If anyone goes outside his home, his life is not guaranteed,” the man said.

The United Nations World Food Programme said last week that its warehouse in Maungdaw, holding 1,175 metric tons of food and supplies that could sustain 64,000 people for a month, had been looted and burnt down in June.

It did not blame any specific party for the incident.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has also ceased essential services in parts of Rakhine, including Maungdaw, the medical charity said in a June 27 statement.

“This indefinite suspension of our activities will leave them with zero access to healthcare in the face of huge needs,” MSF said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in COX’s BAZAR and Poppy McPherson in BANGKOK; Additional reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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