Thousands evacuated as cyclone hits east India

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The Independent Online

A cyclone hit the eastern Indian state of West Bengal today, flooding villages and forcing thousands of people from their homes, officials said.

Authorities began evacuating thousands from two coastal southern districts and warned people living in state capital Kolkata to stay indoors, as cyclone Aila advanced towards the biggest city in the region, packing winds up to 100 kph (60 mph).

It was about 130 km (80 miles) south of Sagar Island, the world's biggest riverine delta, and was expected to hit Kolkata by late afternoon, authorities said.

"The situation is very grave, countless families have been displaced, especially in the Sundarbans," said Kanti Ganguly, West Bengal state minister for the Sundarbans.

The region holds thousands of people as well as the world's biggest tiger reserve.

Heavy rains triggered by the cyclone raised river levels and burst mud embankments in at least three places in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, flooding homes.

At least 500 families have been displaced in Sundarbans, and authorities said they were giving shelter to thousands of people inside schools and government buildings.

Authorities in neighbouring Bangladesh also evacuated thousands of families, mostly in Khulna district near the Sundarbans, to makeshift shelters as tidal waves triggered by the storm in the Bay of Bengal damaged thousands of houses.

The storm surge washed away dozens of shrimp farms and inundated rice fields in the poor south Asian country which is battered by storms every year.

The Bangladesh Meteorology Department said the ports at Chittagong, Mongla and Cox's Bazar should keep storm warnings in place until further notice with cyclone Aila racing towards the coast.

In November 2007, cyclone Sidr ravaged a large part of the country's coast, killing nearly 3,500 people and displacing around two million.