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Scores die in Rohingya refugee shipwreck as UN powers argue over world response

More than 60 people are either confirmed dead or presumed dead following the shipwreck of a boat carrying Rohingya Muslims fleeing from violence in Burma to Bangladesh, the UN migration agency said.

The figure came as the UN Security Council had its first open meeting on Burma for eight years amid clear divisions among its members.

Spokesman Joel Millman of the International Organisation for Migration told reporters in Geneva that 23 deaths have been confirmed after eight more bodies were found overnight following an initial count of 15.

Based on interviews that IOM has conducted with survivors, Mr Millman said: "We believe 40 are missing and presumed drowned" on the vessel, which was thought to have been carrying about 80 people.

He said he did not have information immediately about whether it was the worst death toll at sea since the exodus of Rohingya began on August 25 amid violence targeting them in Burma.

More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since then.

The "very tragic" accident involved a vessel that had been at sea for two days with no food and had faced choppy seas, Mr Millman said.

The UN Security Council's first open meeting on Burma for eight years highlighted deep divisions, with China and Russia supporting the Southeast Asian country's government and the US, Britain and France demanding an end to "ethnic cleansing" of its Rohingya minority.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for strong action, urging Burma's authorities to immediately halt military operations, allow "unfettered access" for humanitarian aid, and ensure all those who fled can return home.

US ambassador Nikki Haley told council members in New York: "We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they appear to be: a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority.

"The time for well-meaning, diplomatic words in this council has passed," she said.

"We must now consider action against Burmese security forces who are implicated in abuses and stoking hatred among their fellow citizens."

Ms Haley urged all countries to suspend the supply of weapons to the country's military until its members are held accountable for the "brutal assault" on the Rohingyas.

The US, Britain and France were joined by many council members in demanding an immediate end to the violence and a strong response.

A global coalition of 88 civil society and human rights organisations urged the Security Council to step up pressure on Burma's authorities "by seriously considering options such as an arms embargo against the military and targeted financial sanctions against individuals responsible or crimes and serious abuses".

China and Russia supported the Burmese government's approach to tackling the crisis.

China's deputy UN ambassador, whose country has close ties to Burma, urged the international community "to view the difficulties and challenges confronting the government of Burma through objective optics, exercise patience, and provide support and help".

Wu Haitao stressed "many of the differences and antagonisms" in Rakhine state have been building up over a long time and "there is no quick fix".

"As we speak, the situation on the ground is beginning to move toward stability," he said.

"All parties should work constructively to help reinforce this momentum, de-escalate the situation and alleviate the humanitarian conditions step by step."

Russia's UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, warned "excessive pressure" on Burma's government "could only aggravate the situation in the country and around it".

There is no alternative to resolving "the longstanding and complicated crisis" in Rakhine through political means and a dialogue among representatives of all nationalities and faiths," he said.

"We need to stop any kind of violence from any side and the rhetoric which fuels it."

AP

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