Vietnam seeks regional help as Storm Hagibis nears

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HANOI, Nov 22 (Reuters) Vietnam has asked nearby countries to give shelter to thousands of its fishermen from a tropical storm now nearing the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, the government said.

Nearly 74,000 fishermen were working off Vietnam's coast in the path of Storm Hagibis as of early yesterday, 58 of them have sought permission to take shelter at a Philippine island, the government said in a disaster report.

On Tuesday Hanoi's Foreign Ministry sent diplomatic notes to Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, asking them to assist Vietnamese fishermen as the storm, the seventh to hit Vietnam this year, was zooming in the Spratlys.

Separately, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo cut short her trip to Singapore for the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and headed home yesterday as another tropical storm approached her nation.

The Spratlys archipelago is a cluster of more than 100 tiny tropical islands and reefs lying between south Vietnam and the southern Philippines in the central South China Sea.

China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian states -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- all lay claim to the Spratlys, believed to be rich in oil, gas, minerals and fisheries.

Hagibis, meaning 'rapidity' in the Philippine's Tagalog language, and which was previously identified as storm 23W, would land on Vietnam's resort town of Phan Thiet at the weekend, the Tropical Storm Risk Web site (http://tsr.mssl.ucl.ac.uk/) said.

It would pose a major danger to southern Vietnam, a region rarely struck by typhoons or tropical storms. The southern tip of the country was hit in November 1997 by Typhoon Linda in which there were 600 known deaths and 2,123 people never accounted for.

The government said floods and storms so far this year have killed 368 people, left 30 others missing and caused property damage of 7.2 trillion dong (6 million).

Rains from Storm Hagibis would disrupt coffee drying and postpone the harvest peak in the Central Highlands key growing region to early next month, posing risk of delay for December deliveries, traders said.

Vietnam is the world's largest robusta coffee producer.

Concerns over possible tight supply for London's January contracts have contributed to industry buying on Tuesday when the robusta market rebounced slightly after Monday's fall.

EVACUATION Heavy rains from the storm, which has triggered landslides that killed nine people in the Philippines as of Tuesday, could also disrupt rice loading at the key Saigon Port, where two vessels were taking 31,500 tonnes for Cuba and Indonesia.

Philippine president Arroyo had ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in coastal and low-lying areas ahead of a tropical storm expected to hit later this week, Eduardo Ermita, her executive secretary, said.

In Albay province alone, about 200,000 residents had already moved to temporary shelter to avoid a repeat of last year's devastating typhoon Durian, which killed 1,200 people and left 120,000 homeless in December.

Storms rarely strike Vietnam in November as the storm and flood season often ends in the central region widely exposed to the sea in October.

Floods are receding slowly in central provinces, where thousands families have been facing shortages of food and clean water after several rounds of heavy rain since early October that killed at least 275 people, 142 of them within the last 20 days.

REUTERS TB BST0422

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