Typhoon off Philippines changes course, heads north

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MANILA, Nov 24 (Reuters) A powerful typhoon hovering off the coast of the central Philippines changed course overnight and was now headed for the northern part of the archipelago, weather officials said today.

Typhoon Mitag, with winds of 175 km per hour at its centre, was almost stationary east of the central Bicol region, the Philippines' typhoon alley, late yesterday triggering mass evacuations and flight cancellations.

But it swung north overnight and was now likely to hit land near the northern provinces of Isabela and Aurora on Sunday evening, the officials said.

Authorities in both provinces ordered evacuations of coastal areas and barred fishermen from going to sea.

At least four people had been killed in Bicol in rains on the periphery of the typhoon system, radio reports said. At least one man was electrocuted, but there were no other details, the reports said.

Disaster officials had evacuated over 160,000 people from their homes in Bicol, where volcanic mud from the slopes of Mount Mayon can trigger lethal landslides. Although the typhoon was likely to miss the region, officials said they had still not allowed the evacuees to return home.

Mitag, a woman's name pronounced Me-tok from Yap in the Pacific Ocean, was now expected to cut through the northern part of the main Philippines island of Luzon before passing into the South China Sea by Tuesday.

Rains from the system were likely to affect most of the central and northern Philippines, weather officials said.

Mitag comes less than a week after tropical storm Hagibis, which killed 13 people in the country before heading across the South China Sea to Vietnam.

Hagibis has now dumped rain on several south-central Vietnam provinces, disrupting the coffee harvest and endangering fishermen, officials said today. Nearly 31,000 people have been evacuated to safety.

About 25 sailors were missing in the South China Sea yesterday after a Philippine fishing boat capsized in rough waters, China's Xinhua news agency reported.

The Philippine ship, numbered ''805900'', was carrying about 80 sailors when it sank near the Nansha Islands in heavy winds. There was no further word on the crew's fate.

Hundreds more fisherman from China, Vietnam and the Philippines were stranded on the Nansha Islands, a group of islets, reefs and sand banks also known as the Spratlys. Sovereignty over the islands is contested.

Storms regularly hit the Philippines and authorities are trying to avoid a repeat of last year's devastating Typhoon Durian, which killed 1,200 and left 120,000 homeless when it crashed through Bicol.

REUTERS SKB ND0902

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