The Mexican authorities have evacuated tourist resorts and shut down off-shore oil facilities ahead of the potentially devastating arrival of Hurricane Dean.

©BBC News

Thousands of tourists attempted to leave the resort of Cancun, but some were unable to get a flight.

Neighbouring Belize is also bracing itself for the hurricane, which is registering winds of 150mph (240km/h).

Forecasters think Dean may get even stronger before it reaches Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula overnight.

The storm has already claimed at least six lives in the eastern Caribbean - but largely spared the Cayman islands earlier on Monday.

In Jamaica, it tore off roofs, uprooted trees and destroyed power lines as the storm's centre passed just south of the island.

Looting fear

Experts believe that Cancun and other popular Mexican resorts will not suffer a "direct hit" but that has not stopped around two-thirds of Cancun's tourists leaving the area.

The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Dean, already "extremely dangerous", may reach Category Five strength in the coming hours, with sustained winds greater than 155mph (249km/h) and a storm surge 18ft (5.5m) above normal tide levels.

Some holidaymakers camped overnight at the Cancun airport to get a flight while others were turned away.

Police officers have been deployed to prevent looting while residents have boarded up their homes in preparedness for the storms.

Mexico's state-oil company, Petroleos de Mexico, has evacuated the remainder of its 14,354 workers and shut down production on the offshore rigs.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the coast of Belize and the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, from Belize City to Cancun.

Daniel Brown, from the NHC, said the focus was now on other areas.

"It looks like the biggest threat is going to be for portions of northern Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula coast of Mexico," he said.

At 2 pm EDT (1800 GMT), Dean was located about 330 miles (530 km) east of Belize City, the largest city in Belize, which borders Mexico.

The hurricane is heading west and is expected to move slightly north-westwards across the Yucatan Peninsula, the NHC said.

After crossing the Yucatan, the storm is forecast to move over the Bay of Campeche in the south-west Gulf of Mexico, before striking Mexico's coast again near Tampico.

Shuttle rescheduled

Dean caused widespread damage as it careered along the south coast of Jamaica.

"I took a journey onto the streets of Kingston and saw huge trees, massive mango trees, coconut trees that have blocked the roads," said Kathy Barrett from Radio Jamaica.

"Power lines are down, it really has been - we got a good beating from Hurricane Dean."

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller declared a month-long state of emergency, widening the powers of security forces.

A general election is due to take place on 27 August, but the storm has cast doubt on that date.

In the US, the return of the space shuttle Endeavour was brought forward by a day, to Tuesday in an attempt to beat the hurricane should it eventually reach Texas, where Nasa's mission control is based.