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Philippines speeds evacuations as typhoon nears

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Philippines authorities raced to evacuate up to one million people as Typhoon Mitag bore down on eastern areas devastated by storms last year.

Flatbed lorries, police-chartered vans and even rubbish trucks were pressed in to service as thousands of men, women and children were moved from vulnerable areas.

Bicol bore the brunt of Super Typhoon Durian last year which killed 1,200 people and left 200,000 homeless.

Entire villages were obliterated and hundreds were swept to their deaths in mudslides triggered by Durian, which blew away houses and uprooted trees as it slammed into the Bicol provinces.

President Gloria Arroyo, who cut short an official visit to Singapore to deal with the typhoon, has told officials she did not want a repeat of last year's disaster and ordered pre-emptive evacuations.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper said up to one million people were being evacuated from the Bicol region, including more than 600,000 people from Albay.

But the paper said evacuations were progressing slowly with less than 10,000 families evacuated. Albay governor Joey Salceda said the army and police were prepared to move forcibly those who did not want to go.

The government's civil defence office said preparations were taking place along the entire east coast of Luzon because the storm was changing direction, making it difficult to tell exactly where it would make landfall.

Chief weather forecaster Nathaniel Cruz said Mitag, packing maximum winds of 175 kilometres per hour and gusts of 210 kilometres per hour, would likely get stronger as it moves closer to the country.

The typhoon is about 220 kilometres east of the eastern island of Catanduanes but is still moving westward at nine kilometres per hour, Mr Cruz said.

He also said the typhoon would either move west-south-west towards the Bicol peninsula or move west-north-west towards Central and Northern Luzon, making landfall on Sunday morning.

"The rain path [of the typhoon] is so huge it affects three-fourths of the country so even if you are not hit by the typhoon, you are going to experience heavy rains," deputy civil defence chief Anthony Golez said.

'Typhoon alley'

Civil defence operations officer Agnes Palacios said they were expecting Mitag to hit the Bicol peninsula, known as 'typhoon alley,' on Saturday, even though some forecasters say it may move north-west, towards Quezon province, east of Manila.

ABS-CBN television said two people had already drowned in the Bicol region from the effects of Mitag, but civil defence officials said the storm was far from the area and the deaths might not be related.

Ms Palacios said they were only expecting to evacuate 200,000 people in Bicol. She could not give figures for other areas.

Officials are on alert for mud and ash flows that may come cascading down the slopes of Mayon Volcano, as well as storm surges that could hit coastal areas.

On the outskirts of Legaspi City, people could be seen trudging along the roads, carrying their clothes and other personal belongings as they sought refuge in safer areas.

Cedric Daep, the disaster coordinating chief in Albay province in Bicol, said they had enough food for the evacuated people to last for two days.

However, he warned that "we will be running out of space in evacuation centres," since some of these shelters had not been fully repaired after being hit by previous typhoons.

The Philippines is frequently hit by extreme weather with tropical storm Hagibis killing 10 people last week. © 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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