Storm lashes Bangladesh coast, thousands evacuated

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DHAKA, Nov 15 (Reuters) A super cyclone was bearing down rapidly on Bangladesh's southwest coastline, ripping off tin roofs from houses and uprooting trees, as hundreds of thousands were evacuated to safer ground.

London-based Tropical Storm Risk said Cyclone Sidr was a Category 4 storm, packing winds of 135 knots, and was heading due north on a course that would take it over the heavily populated southern coast and then towards the capital, Dhaka.

''From my window, I can see tins ripped off the roofs and tree branches flying under the sky covered with thick clouds,'' said Moulvi Feroze Ahmed, a local government official on St.

Martin's island in the Bay of Bengal near the storm.

''It looks like the sea is coming to grab us,'' he said.

Cyclones can cause immense devastation in disaster-prone Bangladesh, a low-lying country of more than 140 million people, particularly from storm surges that can rise as high as 5 metre (16 feet) as severe cyclones make landfall, weather experts say.

The storm started blowing fiercely at 5 pm (1630 IST) at Dublarchar and nearby fishing islands and at the Hiron Point near the Sundarbans at 7 pm (1830 IST), local officials said.

The mangrove forests in the Sundarbans are home to the endangered Bengal tigers and the park is a World Heritage site.

Both areas have been hit by winds of up to 160 kph (100 mph), and weather officials told a reporter in nearby Mongla that these speeds could rise above 180 kph in an hour or so.

''Given the current speed, the core of the storm may pass through the Sundarban-Barisal coast into the mainland in about two/three hours, and then lose its strength,'' said one meteorology official at 2000 IST).

So far, no loss of life or major property damage has been reported, officials said.

Power and telephone links have been largely cut, but some mobile networks are working sporadically, the reporter said.

Navy officials said many of Dublarchar's nearly 15,000 fishermen were believed to have taken shelter in the Sundarban mangroves, with their boats.

Rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal along parts of the southern coast have all swollen and are still rising, water department officials said.

Some areas have been inundated by a storm surge of up to 7 feet (2.3 metre), and many thatched homes were swept away, disaster management officials said.

The Bangladesh Meteorology Department said the core of the storm was now about 150 km (90 miles) from the Mongla coast and was expected to make landfall around midnight today (2330 IST) 600,000 EVACUATED Officials at Cox's Bazar, a popular tourist destination, said they had evacuated nearly 200,000 people to about 600 government and private shelters and asked others to move on their own.

Around 400,000 more had been evacuated from other coastal areas, disaster management officials said.

Storms batter the poor south Asian country every year. A severe cyclone killed more than half a million people in 1970, while one in 1991, which generated a 6-metre storm surge, killed 143,000 people.

Nearly 10 million Bangladeshis live along the southern coast, which usually takes the brunt of cyclones, but the area has shelters for only about half a million.

Chittagong and Mongla ports suspended operations on Wednesday and moved ships to safer areas, port officials said.

Chittagong airport suspended flights and moved planes away, officials said.

All schools and colleges in Chittagong and other towns in the storm's path have been shut down and fishing trawlers have been asked to return to port immediately.

The meteorology department raised danger signal number 10, the highest, at Mongla, Bangladesh's second main sea port, and number 9 at Chittagong and Cox's Bazar.

The storm was expected to hit India's West Bengal coast around midnight with wind speeds of up to 200 km per hour, said B.P. Yadav, a senior weather official.''We have suggested evacuation of people from the region,'' he added.

India issued a storm alert for coastal areas of Orissa and West Bengal today, Information and Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Paramilitary forces were on standby to deploy to affected areas.

REUTERS PY VC2107

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