Severe tropical cyclone bears down on Tonga

SYDNEY Thu Jan 9, 2014 2:20am EST

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - A category three cyclone bearing down on the South Pacific island nation of Tonga with destructive winds is expected to make landfall in as little as 18 hours, Tonga Meteorological Services said on Thursday.

Tropical Cyclone Ian, which has been hovering in a stretch of ocean between Fiji and Tonga since Monday, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) east of Australia, is packing estimated average winds of 140 kph (87 mph), with gusts up to 175 kph.

The storm system is expected to intensify before moving east towards the islands of Niaufo'ou and Vava'u and then taking a sweeping turn to the southeast.

There are five stages of tropical storm, with Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 4,000 people and caused widespread destruction in the Philippines in November rated at 5, the most powerful. Category Three is defined by wind gusts up to 224 kph.

Destructive winds could be felt in Tonga several hours before the centre of the storm makes landfall, the agency said. Residents of the Vava'u islands have begun boarding up windows, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

A forecaster from the Fiji Meteorological Service, Sanjay Prakash, told Radio Australia that the impact of the cyclone on Tonga could be "catastrophic".

Cyclone Christine ripped across Australia's northwest earlier this month, bettering coastal regions and closing major iron ore shipping terminals.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel, Editing by Jane Wardell and Ron Popeski)

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