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Thousands flee as strong cyclone approaches Bangladesh

Thousands of coastal villagers flee inland as a strong cyclone rapidly approaches Bangladesh's southwestern shores, spawning cold drizzles, strong winds and high waves, a weather official said.

Tropical cyclone Sidr - centered in the Bay of Bengal some 415 kilometers (258 miles) south of Mongla port at 0600 GMT- was expected to make landfall late Thursday along the Khulna-Barisal coast, said Shahjahan Alam, an official at the Meteorological Department in the capital, Dhaka.

"It is likely to intensify and move in a northerly direction, and may cross the Khulna-Barisal coast by Thursday evening," the Meteorological Department warned in a special bulletin.

The cyclone, which began brewing Tuesday in the Bay of Bengal, was producing winds of up to 220 kilometers (137 miles) per hour, and may trigger tidal surges as high as 6 meters (20 feet), Alam said in Dhaka, 175 kilometers (110 miles) north of Barisal town.

The Bangladesh Meteorological Department issued a bulletin Wednesday putting the low-lying country's three major maritime ports - Chittagong, Mongla and Cox's Bazar - on the highest level of alert.

Volunteers helped evacuate thousands of people Wednesday from coastal areas and the Meteorological Department warned ships to return to shore as the cyclone roared offshore.

Thousands of villagers moved to cyclone shelters - concrete buildings on raised pilings, or sought refuge inside "mud forts" - mud walls built along the coast to resist tidal surges.

Many fishing boats also put down anchor at nearby shoals and islets that dot the South Asian country's shoreline, witnesses said.

The cyclone also triggered rains and winds across the country, the weather office said.

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta nation, is prone to seasonal cyclones and floods that cause huge losses of life and property.

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