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Cyclone Mahasen pulls its punch

By Tom Watkins and Jethro Mullen, CNN
May 16, 2013 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "The situation is turning normal," a Bangladeshi official says
  • NEW: At least 12 people were killed
  • Hundreds of thousands of people had been relocated to safer areas

(CNN) -- Tropical Cyclone Mahasen jogged northward Thursday prior to striking the coast of Bangladesh, averting the widespread disaster that government authorities had prepared for.

Still, at least 12 people were killed, thousands of thatched houses were damaged and trees uprooted, the state news agency said.

"The situation is turning normal and the people have started returning home after some 200,000 people took overnight refuge at cyclone shelters at Barisal Division," divisional commissioner of Barisal Mohammad Nurul Amin told Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

"The damage was not that much what we feared, and people who took shelters have already started moving to their houses as the weather is becoming almost normal," he said.

Bangladeshi authorities had relocated hundreds of thousands of people in vulnerable areas to safer ground ahead of the storm's arrival.

Bangladeshi men pray in front of the bodies of victims of Cyclone Mahasen in Tekna, south of Dhaka, on Friday, May 17. The bodies washed up on the shores of Bangladesh after the victims' boat capsized while sailing from Myanmar. At least 12 deaths have been reported in Bangladesh due to the cyclone. Bangladeshi men pray in front of the bodies of victims of Cyclone Mahasen in Tekna, south of Dhaka, on Friday, May 17. The bodies washed up on the shores of Bangladesh after the victims' boat capsized while sailing from Myanmar. At least 12 deaths have been reported in Bangladesh due to the cyclone.
Tropical Cyclone Mahasen
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Photos: Tropical Cyclone Mahasen Photos: Tropical Cyclone Mahasen
Cyclone Mahasen displaces thousands
CNN Explains: Tropical cyclones

The storm's strongest gusts reached 90 kph (56 mph), weaker than a hurricane, BSS said.

Authorities had suspended port activities at Chittagong, a major transport and commercial hub, and canceled all flights to and from the city's airport.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had warned that Mahasen could put millions of people in the surrounding region at risk.

On Wednesday, aid agencies and local authorities scrambled to prepare residents and to put emergency supplies in position.

Bangladeshi authorities relocated at least half a million people from the coastal districts of southeastern Bangladesh, the top administrative officer of Chittagong Division said.

Authorities prepared thousands of buildings as cyclone shelters.

The OCHA put the number of people ordered to relocate by the Bangladeshi government at 1 million nationwide.

There was reason for the caution: In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed some 400,000 people, according to the OCHA. Cyclone Sidr killed nearly 4,000 people in 2007, and Cyclone Aila killed about 200 people in 2009.

A vulnerable group in Myanmar

Relocation efforts have also proved challenging in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.

On Rakhine's coast, Myanmar authorities and relief agencies worked to relocate tens of thousands of Muslims who had been living in makeshift camps in low-lying areas since last year, when their homes were destroyed in sectarian violence.

Most of them are Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority who suffered during decades of military rule in Myanmar.

Sectarian violence erupted last year in Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslims, resulting in the deaths of scores of people, most of them Rohingya. Since then, more than 100,000 Muslims have been forced to live in camps.

In a report last month, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused Myanmar authorities of involvement in a Buddhist campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya in Rakhine. The Myanmar government dismissed the report as "one-sided."

The efforts to relocate some of the displaced Rohingya living in the camps appear to have been hindered by distrust of the security forces involved.

On Monday night, a boat ferrying people from one camp in Rakhine to safer areas hit rocks and capsized, the OCHA said, citing the government. Fifty-eight people were missing and an unspecified number died, the agency said.

CNN's Brian Walker and journalist Farid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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