COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh – The outer bands of Cyclone Mahasen struck the southern coast of Bangladesh on Thursday, lashing remote fishing villages with heavy rain and fierce winds that flattened mud and straw huts and forced the evacuation of more than 1 million people.
The eye of the storm was expected to reach land Thursday evening, but at least 18 deaths related to Mahasen already have been reported in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The storm was on course for Bangladesh, Myanmar and northeast India, bringing life-threatening conditions to an area with a total population of 8.2 million, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Danger was particularly high for tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people living in plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds in dozens of refugee camps along Myanmar's western coast. Driven from their homes by violence, members of the Muslim minority group refused to evacuate, distrusting an order from officials in a majority-Buddhist country where Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination.
Early Thursday, the cyclone battered the southern Bangladesh fishing village of Khepurpara along the Bay of Bengal with 100 kph (62 mph) winds and was heading east toward the city of Chittagong and the seafront resort town of Cox's Bazar. River ferries and boat service were suspended, and scores of factories near the choppy Bay of Bengal were closed. The military said it was keeping 22 navy ships and 19 Air Force helicopters at the ready.
Tens of thousands of people fled their shanty homes along the coast and packed into cyclone shelters, schools, government office buildings and some of the 300 hotels in Cox's Bazar to wait out the storm. Some brought their livestock, which took shelter outside.
"We have seen such a disaster before," said Mohammad Abu Taleb, who shut down his convenience shop in the city of 200,000. "It's better to stay home. I'm not taking any chance."
A 1991 cyclone that slammed into Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal killed an estimated 139,000 people and left millions homeless. In 2008, Myanmar's southern delta was devastated Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people.
Both those cyclones were much more powerful than Cyclone Mahasen, which is rated Category 1 — the weakest level. It could hit land with maximum wind speeds of about 120 kph (75 mph), said Mohammad Shah Alam, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.
Heavy rain and storm surge could prove deadlier than the wind. Bangladesh's meteorological office said the cyclone was moving so slowly it may take a whole day for it to pass the Bangladesh coast.
In Cox's Bazar, local government administrator Ruhul Amin turned his own three-story office building into a shelter for about 400 people as intermittent rains and gusty winds hit.
Huddling with the crowd, evacuee Mohammad Tayebullah said, "Each time there is a cyclone warning we come to the town for shelter. This has become part of our life."
The Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management said more than 1 million people had been evacuated from coastal areas. Television stations reported the deaths of two men, one of whom was crushed by a tree uprooted by the wind.
India's Meteorological Department forecast damage to the northeastern states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland, and advised fishermen off the west coast of the country to be cautious for the next 36 hours.
Related heavy rains and flooding in Sri Lanka were blamed for eight deaths earlier this week. At least eight people — and possibly many more — were killed in Myanmar as they fled the cyclone Monday night, when overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 Rohingya capsized. Only 43 people had been rescued by Thursday, and more than 50 Rohingya were still missing.
Much attention was focused on western Myanmar because of fears over the fate of the crowded, low-lying Rohingya camps.
In Rakhine state, around 140,000 people — mostly Rohingya — have been living in the camps since last year, when two outbreaks of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists forced many Rohingya from their homes.
Nearly half the displaced live in coastal areas considered highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from Cyclone Mahasen.
"Pack and leave," a Rakhine state official, U Hla Maung, warned as he walked through a camp near Sittwe, the state capital. Accompanied by more than a dozen soldiers and riot police, he suggested that people living there move to a nearby railroad embankment, then left without offering help.
Distrust of authorities led many Rohingya to stay where they were Thursday morning.
"We have no safe place to move, so we're staying here, whether the storm comes or not," said Ko Hla Maung, an unemployed fisherman. "... The soldiers want to take us to a village closer to the sea, and we're not going to do that. ... If the storm is coming, then that village will be destroyed."
Even as rain and wind from the edges of Cyclone Mahasen began to pelt the coast near Sittwe, most people camped there appeared to be staying put. Some, however, were taking down their tents and hauling their belongings away in cycle-rickshaws, or carrying them in bags balanced on their heads.
"Now we're afraid. ... We decided to move early this morning," said U Kwaw Swe, a 62-year-old father of seven who was hoping the government would transport his family. Otherwise they intended to walk to safety.
Myanmar's President's Office Minister Aung Min told reporters Wednesday that the government guarantees the safety of the Rohingyas during relocation and promises to return them to their current settlement when the storm has passed.
The Rohingya trace their ancestry to what is now Bangladesh, but many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Officially, though, they are dismissed as illegal immigrants. They face widespread discrimination in largely Buddhist Myanmar, and particularly in Rakhine, where many of the Rohingya live.
Tensions remain high in Rakhine nearly a year after sectarian unrest tore through the region and left parts of Sittwe, the state capital, burned to the ground. At least 192 people were killed.
Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan in Sittwe, Myanmar, Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok, and Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh contributed to this report.