Typhoon slams into northern Philippines

A powerful typhoon slammed into the northeastern tip of the Philippines today, tearing roofs off houses and uprooting trees, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Officials said Typhoon Parma, the strongest typhoon to hit the country since 2006, may not be as destructive as feared since it had made landfall in the sparsely-populated Cagayan province and would weaken over land.

The system brought rain across the main island of Luzon but not as much as feared, especially along the densely-populated west coast where floods in and around Manila from Typhoon Ketsana last week killed nearly 300 people.

"The eye of the typhoon is looping right now in the eastern portion of Cagayan province," chief weather forecaster Nathaniel Cruz told local radio, adding that the typhoon had maximum sustained winds of 110 mph near the centre and gusts of up to 130 mph.

In Manila, a storm signal posted for the capital region overnight was lifted, but officials warned nearly half a million people living in shelters after their homes were flooded last week to stay put.

"There is still a risk of rain," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said on national television. "We ask the evacuees to stay one more night in evacuation centers.

Authorities in Taiwan issued a sea warning as Parma was likely to enter its southern waters in the next few days.

On the Philippines' east coast, about 2,600 people were left stranded because of impassable roads in the Bicol region and on the island of Catanduanes, relief officials said.

Fallen trees and landslides had blocked roads in Cagayan and neighbouring Isabela province as well.

"So many trees have been uprooted, blocking roads," regional police chief Robert Damian told reporters. "Galvanised iron sheets from houses are flying all over and power and communications are also down."

Some areas had been flooded, but there were no reports of deaths, he said.

Troops are evacuating entire communities from the east coast and almost 100,000 have already been shifted to safer areas, officials said. Arroyo declared a nationwide calamity on Friday to allow local governments to access emergency funds and cap the prices of essential goods.

Officials said some 5.5 billion pesos (£72.5m) in crops, mostly rice about to be harvested, were damaged by Ketsana last week. The damage to bridges and roads was estimated at 1.6 billion pesos (£21m).

The Asia-Pacific region has been hit by a series of natural disasters in recent days, including Ketsana that killed more than 400 in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tens of thousands were also displaced in southern Laos and flash floods were reported in northern Thailand.

Two powerful earthquakes rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra, with the death toll likely to be in the thousands, and a tsunami battered American and Western Samoa, killing nearly 150.

In the Philippines, Arroyo ordered a one-year deferment in repayment of loans provided by state pension funds, part of liquidity-boosting measures to protect the economy following the massive typhoon devastation.

She said she would ask the central bank to set up a five-year special rediscounting window to help lenders refinance loans to small and medium-scale businesses, a proposal the central bank said it would study.

Cruz, the weather bureau's chief forecaster, told reporters that while Parma was a powerful typhoon, it would not bring as much rain as Ketsana.

"There will be rains but we will no longer experience the same amount of rainfall that Ketsana dumped last week."