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Cyclone builds in Bay of Bengal

Strong winds lashed the Bangladesh coastline today as the disaster-prone south Asian country braced for a cyclone gaining strength in the Bay of Bengal.

"Up to 50 kph (30 mph) winds accompanied by rain lashed the coasts, driving many people from their homes, and also triggered a moderate sea surge," said Nurul Islam, a resident of Cox's Bazar coastal district.

Local meteorology officials said the storm would likely to intensify and push the sea surge up to 10 feet (three meters) high above the normal tide.

Activity at the busy Chittagong port was suspended and ships moved to outer anchorages or other safer locations, said Commodore R.U. Ahmed, chairman of the port authority.

Authorities suspended flights at the airport from Friday evening, while many tourists have already left Cox's Bazar beach resort, officials said.

At 1000 GMT on Friday, "Bijli" was packing winds up to 90 kph (55 mph) around the storm centre, as it centred about 345 kms (215 miles) from Chittagong, 315 kms (197 miles) from Cox's Bazar and 200 kms (125 miles) from Mongla port.

The Chittagong port hoisted storm warning signal number 7, Cox's Bazar 6 and Mongla 5, met officials said.

Bangladesh grades storms with signals ranging from 1 to 10, and authorities start major preparations when the signal is raised to five or beyond.

A.H.M. Abdullah, a director at the Disaster Management Bureau, said: "We have opened an emergency control room in the (disaster management) ministry and at all field level offices, particularly in coastal areas."

A weather official in Dhaka said the storm was likely to intensify, although Tropical Storm Risk was less alarmist on its website ( http://tropicalstormrisk.com/ ).

Storms and cyclones batter Bangladesh almost every year, killing many people and causing huge damage to crops and property.

A devastating cyclone in April 1991 killed around 140,000 people, while Cyclone Sidr swept part of the coast in November 2007 killing around 3,000.