Tens of thousands evacuated as storm nears Bangladesh

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DHAKA, Nov 15 (Reuters) The outer reaches of an expected severe cyclone buffeted Saint Martin's island off Bangladesh's coast today, as tens of thousands of mainlanders were evacuated to shelters and high land, officials said.

''Strong winds with a speed of about 80 kph started slamming the island at about 12 noon (1130 IST),'' said Moulvi Feroze Ahmed, a local government official on the island, 35 km from the mainland.

''Some 6,000 residents and nearly 70 tourists have been evacuated to safety,'' he told a Reuters reporter in Cox's Bazar by telephone.

''The sea has started getting rough and the storm has already set off a 3 feet high water surge.'' Earlier, officials said the storm, classified category 4 by the weather tracker Tropical Storm Risk, would likely make landfall in Bangladesh, any time from around 2 p.m. (1330 IST) packing winds of more than 210 kph.

Officials at Cox's Bazar said they had evacuated nearly 200,000 people to about 600 government and private shelters and asked others to move on their own.

''The shifting process is continuing,'' said Sajjadul Hasan, chief of the Cox's Bazar district administration.

Authorities have deployed more than 40,000 volunteers, police, troops, coastguards and health workers on the shoreline, where nearly 10 million people live in an area with storm shelters for around only half a million.

''We are taking people out of the high risk zones by using government transport and providing them food and shelter,'' said a government official in Chittagong.

Volunteers of the Cyclone Preparedness Centre were moving through villages, alerting people on loudspeakers about the impending danger.

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

Chittagong airport also suspended flights.

Fishing trawlers have been asked to return to harbours immediately, fishing community leaders in Cox's Bazar said.

The storm may also hit parts of eastern India and Myanmar, meteorological officials said.

UNUSUAL CALM In Chittagong, officials said they were worried by the unusual calm before the storm.

''This suggests the core of the storm has been static, but may suddenly move with super speed before it finally slams the shores,'' a meteorological official said.

The Bangladesh 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 main port and prime tourist resort respectively.

It may also trigger a tidal surge up to 15 feet (five metres) in some areas, meteorological officials 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.

Officials said the storm was also 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 tomorrow morning, near Sagar Island.

REUTERS JT BD1340

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