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Thousands evacuated as Cyclone Phailin approaches India's east coast

Thousands of people are being evacuated as India’s east coast braces itself for Cyclone Phailin. India's air force has been called in to help move people away from the path of the cyclone, set to hit over the weekend.

The cyclone is sweeping through the Bay of Bengal, with the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) anouncing that the storm "would increase in intensity, with gale wind-speed reaching 205-215 kilometers (127-134 miles) per hour at the time of landfall."

IMD Director General L.S. Rathore told the local television station NDTV that Phailin was "very close to a super cyclonic storm" - the strongest category there is.

"It is definitely not going to fizzle out. It is not going to weaken substantially,' he added.

Destined for the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on Saturday, Phailin has invoked memories of the 1999 super cyclone. Nearly 15,000 died when that storm hit Odisha (then known as Orissa), but state officials believe they are at least better equipped to deal with wild weather if and when Phailin hits.

"We are fighting against nature. We are better prepared this time. We learned a lot from 1999," the state's Disaster Management Minister Surya Narayan Patra told NDTV.

"The first priority will be to save people's lives, ensure food and electricity," he said.

Cyclone set for Saturday arrival

As well as Odisha, Andhra Pradesh has experienced heavy rains and gale-force winds and is expected to be hit by the worst of the cyclone on Saturday evening.

On Thursday, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had written to Indian Defense Minister AK Antony to ask for assistance, according to media reports.

"Our past experience indicates that, despite the state government's preparedness, the impact of a very severe cyclonic storm requires support of the defense forces to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events," Patnaik wrote.

As well as the air force, India's army and navy are preparing to assist.

State officials have begun stockpiling emergency food supplies and setting up shelters for those fleeing the storm. The cyclone is expected to cause extensive damage to crops, homes and power and communication systems.

ph/kms (AP, AFP)