Bangladesh, eastern India on cyclone alert

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DHAKA, Nov 14 (Reuters) Bangladesh went on cyclone alert today and ships were turned back to port as a severe storm in the Bay of Bengal was expected to make landfall in the next two days.

The Bangladesh Meteorological Department said the storm with winds of around 185 km per hour was some 850 km off the coast at 0830 hrs IST today.

''It is likely to intensify and move in a northerly direction and may make a landfall at the Sundarban mangroves,'' a meteorologist said.

He said the storm was expected to hit Vishakapatnam on the eastern Indian coast as well as Sittewe in Myanmar.

''This is a very serious cyclone,'' said B P Yadav, director of the India Meteorological Department, adding that he expected the storm to cross the coast of Bangladesh and the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal by Friday morning, near Sagar Island.

Operations at Bangladesh's main Chittagong port were suspended and hundreds of ships and fishing boats returned to the shore today.

''We have suspended loading and unloading of cargo on the mother vessels at the outer anchorage as the sea has turned turbulent,'' a port official said.

The British storm tracking system -- Tropical Storm Risk --has described the storm as category 4, with windspeed up to 250 km per hour.

It was likely to become a category 3 storm tomorrow, losing some speed and ferocity, the TSR said in its latest forecast.

But meteorology officials in Bangladesh said the cyclone could still be very devastating, and asked people to be on alert.

Thousands of coastguards, police, army and volunteers were on standby to undertake emergency rescue and relief operation once the storm made landfall.

Bangladesh's main tourist resort, Cox's Bazar, wore a deserted look on Wednesday and hotels were largely empty, officials and witnesses said.

Residents had packed food and other essentials in case they needed to evacuate, a Reuters journalist in Cox's Bazar said.

High waves were had begun slamming the shore, he said.

Indian officials said Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state, should expect to be hit by ''squally winds and heavy rainfall''.

The neighbouring state of Orissa would also be affected.

Nearly 10 million Bangladeshis live in vulnerable points along the coast, but there are storm shelters for only half a million people, a disaster management official said.

Storms batter the poor south Asian country every year, killing hundreds of people. A severe storm killed more than half a million people in 1970, while a 1991 storm killed 143,000 people and destroyed thousands of properties.

REUTERS ARB RN1537

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