Winds of near-hurricane force struck the Baltic states on Sunday night, causing widespread damage and leaving thousands without electricity.

In Latvia, up to 50,000 people were left without power by winds gusting up to 115 kilometres per hour - almost hurricane speed. Flooding threatened many low-lying areas, including the capital, Riga, where the river Daugava surged two metres above normal levels.

At sea, a Cypriot freighter ran aground in high seas off the western Latvian port of Liepaja. Latvian and Swedish helicopters worked overnight to evacuate the crew.

The ship severed an undersea telephone cable as it came aground, Latvian national phone provider Lattelecom reported. Some international calls may suffer as a result, a spokeswoman told the Leta news agency.

In neighbouring Lithuania, almost 50,000 people suffered power-cuts as the storm uprooted trees and tore the roofs off houses, Baltic News Service BNS reported.

Rivers burst their banks in two western areas of the country before beginning to recede.

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, was also hit by flooding in western areas. The coastal city of Parnu was worst affected, with reports of widespread flooding closing large parts of the town to vehicle traffic.

And 3,500 households on the western island of Saaremaa were left without power at the height of the storm. Officials said that the country escaped without major damage, however.

This is the second time in two years that the Baltics have been hit by devastating storms. In January 2005 even stronger winds struck the three countries, causing widespread damage and being dubbed a "once-in-a-lifetime" event.