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UPDATE 3-Hurricane nears Belize, could hit Mexico oil fields
* Richard expected to hit coast later on Sunday
* Tourists evacuated from Belize hotels
* Remnants could reach oil platforms in Gulf of Mexico
* Coffee crops in Honduras, Guatemala likely to be spared (Rewrites throughout with details on storm preparations)
By Isela Serrano
CANCUN, Mexico, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Hurricane Richard strengthened as it bore down on the tiny Central American nation of Belize, where tourists were evacuated from hotels and some residents fled to government shelters.
The storm was seen making landfall near Belize City late on Sunday before weakening to a tropical depression and entering Mexico's Bay of Campeche, where Mexico produces more than two-thirds of its 2.6 million barrels-per-day of crude output.
"We're all nervous here, just waiting to see what's going to happen," said Myrna Harris, who moved all her guests and furniture to the second floor of the hotel she runs in Belize City.
Further south, hotel workers sent their guests inland and were chopping down fruit and coconuts from trees.
"We don't want the fruit to become missiles during the storm," said Rosario Villanueva, a security guard at a hotel in Placencia where guests were evacuated early on Sunday.
Richard packed maximum sustained winds of 90 miles (150 km) per hour and will likely power through Belize and southern Mexico to enter Mexico's main oil producing region by Tuesday.
Most computer forecasting models appeared to suggest the storm would steer clear of major oil installations in the U.S. Gulf.
Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, said it was watching the storm but had not evacuated any workers from its offshore platforms. The storm would likely not strengthen again once it entered the Gulf, the NHC said.
"We're still operating normally and monitoring (the storm)," a Pemex spokesman said.
In September, Hurricane Karl forced a brief shutdown of 14 minor Mexican wells in the Gulf, with no significant impact on production.
Full coverage [ID:nN2005]
In Belize, an impoverished country of about 330,000 people that will likely bear the brunt of the storm, families left fragile houses and moved into shelters along the coast, said Noreen Fairweather, coordinator of the country's emergency services organization.
"It could get dicey out there," Fairweather said, adding that heavy winds and rain were already whipping the coast.
Richard was a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest rank on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, and was about 25 miles (40 km) east of Belize City. It was moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).
Further up the Caribbean coast, Mexico was evacuating residents from Mayan villages on the Yucatan peninsula where many of the poor live in thatched huts. The storm looked likely to spare the resort city of Cancun.
Richard was the 10th hurricane of the busy 2010 Atlantic storm season. Five of those hurricanes have been major, but the United States has escaped a significant landfall so far.
Earlier in the day, Richard knocked down trees and power lines on the islands off Honduras' north coast, whose white sandy beaches are popular with foreign tourists.
Honduras' coffee crop will likely not be affected by the storm, said Dagoberto Suazo, a board member of the country's national coffee institute.
Honduran authorities said electricity had been knocked out in some areas and mudslides had cut off dozens of villages.
"Thank God we don't have any serious damage or deaths or injuries," said Lizandro Rosales, head of Honduras' emergency services committee.
Richard will also cross through northern Guatemala, threatening to cause floods and mudslides, though the head of the country's coffee growers' association said the coffee crop would probably not be affected. (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City and Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City; writing and further reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Paul Simao)
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