A huge fire sweeps through the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. Photo: Anadolu Agency/AFP

Fifteen people have died and 400 are missing after a huge fire destroyed the shanty homes of tens of thousands of Rohingya in the world’s biggest refugee settlement in Bangladesh, the UN said Tuesday.

Nearly one million of the persecuted Muslim minority many of whom escaped a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar that UN investigators concluded was executed with “genocidal intent”  live in squalid conditions at the network of camps in the southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.

The fire broke out Monday and left at least 50,000 people homeless as it ripped through their flimsy bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters, according to police and aid groups. Terrified families fled with whatever they could carry, with distraught parents separated from their children in the rush.

LIttle is left of the refugee camp after more than 10,000 makeshift tents burned down. Photo: Anadolu Agency/AFP

It was just the latest blaze in recent weeks and the biggest since 2017. Bangladesh has ordered a probe.

“People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies,” said Aminul Haq, a refugee.

“I couldn’t save any of our belongings as I was busy saving my children from the fire. We simply ran away from our house,” said another, Nasima Khatun.

Johannes Van der Klaauw, the UN Refugee Agency’s representative in Bangladesh, said that so far it has confirmed 15 people dead, 560 injured, 400 missing and at least 10,000 shelters destroyed.

But Bangladesh police put the death toll lower at 11.

A camp resident sits among the ashes of refugee possessions. Photo: Anadolu Agency/AFP)

“What we have seen in this fire is something we have never seen before in these camps. It is massive. It is devastating,” Van der Klaauw told reporters in Geneva via videolink.

Officials said the blaze appeared to have started in one of the 34 camps which span about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) before spreading rapidly to three other sites despite desperate efforts to put out the flames.

Thick columns of smoke could be seen billowing from blazing shanties in videos shared on social media, as hundreds of firefighters and aid workers pulled refugees to safety.

Firefighters finally brought the blaze under control around midnight. 

Unable to flee

The cause of the fire was not known but police inspector Gazi Salahuddin said it spread after gas cylinders used for cooking exploded.

Mohammad Yasin, a Rohingya helping fight the fire, said the blaze raged for more than 10 hours and was the worst he had seen.

A volunteer for Save the Children, Tayeba Begum, said “children were running, crying for their families”.

Refugees International said, “Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps.”

This was echoed by Myo Min Khan, a Rohingya, who wrote on Facebook, “We were unable to flee because of the fence, my youngest daughter got injured badly.”

AFP was not independently able to verify the claims about the fence.

Police rejected the accusation, saying only a tiny part of the camp was fenced.