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Weather

Cyclone Mahasen approaches Bangladesh coast

Hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh and Myanmar have been ordered to move to safety as a cyclone heads towards low-lying coastal areas. Cyclone Mahasen is expected to hit the Bangladesh coast on Thursday.

Bangladesh has issued a storm warning of seven out of 10, and is evacuating low-lying areas that are home to around one million people.

A weather report out of the capital Dhaka estimated that the cyclone would make landfall on Thursday. Though weakening, Mahasen remained a category 1 cyclone. The storm is also expected to cross Myanmar, with similar evacuation efforts in process in the western Rakhine state.

Moving north over the Bay of Bengal, the cyclone prompted mass evacuation orders in Bangladesh and Myanmar on Wednesday.

"The military will move them to higher ground," the minister of the Myanmar president's office, Aung Min, said at a news conference in Yangon.

Despite being classified as the lowest-level category one, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned in a statement released late Tuesday that the cyclone may bring "life-threatening conditions" for 8.2 million people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Bangladesh's Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar areas could face the worst of a tidal surge and heavy rains, it said. Cox's Bazaar, a long strip of coastline near the Myanmar border, is home to dilapidated camps housing Rohingya Muslim refugees.

Around 140,000 displaced people live in camps in Western Myanmar. Many of those without homes are the stateless Rohingya Muslims, who fled last year's outbreaks of religious violence. At least 192 people were killed in June and October during violence in Rakhine State between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

Many Rohingya have refused to relocate from camps in Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar, wary of the authorities' intentions.

However others have tried to get an early evacuation start. On Tuesday, a boat carrying up to 150 Rohingya Muslims fleeing the cyclone sunk off the coast of Myanmar. State media said rescuers were still searching for about 58 missing people as of Tuesday night.

Speaking at a coordination meeting in Yangon on Tuesday, Myanmar's President Thein Sein urged officials to use the experience gained in May 2008 after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta killing about 140,000 people.

"Security, safety, food and health care are crucial. And it's very important to carry out relief work on humanitarian grounds for all regardless of race and religion," official papers quoted him as saying.

hc, jr/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)