More than 50 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were missing after their boat capsized, with 20 confirmed dead, Bangladesh police said on Friday, as a new surge in the numbers fleeing a Myanmar military campaign took the total to more than half a million.

The refugees drowned in heavy seas off Bangladesh late on Thursday while, in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called on countries to suspend providing weapons to Myanmar over violence against Rohingya Muslims.

It was the first time the United States had called for punishment of Myanmar’s military, but she stopped short of threatening to reimpose U.S. sanctions which were suspended under the Obama administration.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and has denounced rights abuses.

Buddhist vigilantes

Its military launched a sweeping offensive in response to co-ordinated attacks on the security forces by Rohingya insurgents in the north of Rakhine State on Aug. 25.

Refugees arriving in Myanmar have told of attacks and arson by the military and Buddhist vigilantes aimed at driving Rohingya out.

MYANMAR-ROHINGYA/

People watch as bodies of Rohingya refugees who died after their boat capsized are prepared for the funeral near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council the violence had spiralled into the “world’s fastest developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare”.

Bangladeshi border officials said more refugees had arrived over the past day or two after the number seemed to be tailing off. Aid groups said 502,000 refugees had arrived in Bangladesh since late August.

12 children among the dead

“It stopped for a while but they have started coming again,” Col. Anisul Haque, head of the Bangladeshi border guards in the town of Teknaf, told Reuters, adding that about 1,000 people had landed at the main arrival point on the coast on Thursday.

The refugee boat that capsized went over in driving wind and rain and high seas.

Police said 20 bodies had been recovered, 12 of them children, while 27 people survived and more than 50 were missing.

Survivor Abdul Kalam, 55, said at least 100 people had been on board. His wife, two daughters and a grandson were among the dead, he said.

‘Brutal, sustained campaign’

Kalam said armed Buddhists had come to his village about a week ago and taken away livestock and food. He said villagers had been summoned to a military office and told there were no such people as Rohingya in Myanmar.

After that he decided to leave and headed to the coast with his family, avoiding military camps on the way.

United Nations-Myanmar

United Nations Ambassador from U.S. Nikki Haley said Myanmar’s military must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

In a sharp ramping up of the pressure on Myanmar, also known as Burma, Haley echoed UN accusations that the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine State was ethnic cleansing.

“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,” Haley told the UN Security Council.

Scathing criticism for Suu Kyi

The United States had earlier said the army response to the insurgent attacks was “disproportionate” and the crisis raised questions about Myanmar’s transition to democracy, under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, after decades of military rule.

Suu Kyi has no power over the generals under a military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency. She has nevertheless drawn scathing criticism from around the world for failing to speak out more strongly and stop the violence.

The military campaign against the Rohingya insurgents is well-supported inside Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has surged over the past few years.

Haley said the military must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Myanmar denies ethnic cleansing

“Those who have been accused of committing abuses should be removed from command responsibilities immediately and prosecuted for wrongdoing,” she said. “And any country that is currently providing weapons to the Burmese military should suspend these activities until sufficient accountability measures are in place,” Haley said.

Myanmar national security adviser Thaung Tun said at the United Nations there was no ethnic cleansing or genocide in Myanmar. He told the Security Council that Myanmar had invited Guterres to visit.

Rohingya Muslim refugees share horrific survival stories3:41

A UN official said the secretary general would consider visiting under the right conditions.

China and Russia both expressed support for the Myanmar government. Myanmar said this month it was negotiating with China and Russia, which have veto powers in the Security Council, to protect it from any possible action by the council.

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