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Tropical storm could form near northern Bahamas

MIAMI (Reuters) - A tropical depression formed in the Atlantic Ocean near the northwest Bahamas on Sunday and forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could strengthen into Tropical Storm Bret by Monday.

The swirling mass of thunderstorms was expected to pass near the northern islands of the Bahamas and then curve out over the open Atlantic, staying away from the U.S. coast and the energy interests in the Gulf of Mexico.

The government of the Bahamas issued a tropical storm watch for Grand Bahama Island and the Abaco islands in the northwest Bahamas, alerting residents that tropical storm conditions are possible within 48 hours.

The disturbance had top winds of 35 miles per hour (56 km per hour). If those rotating winds reach 39 miles per hour (63 km per hour), it would become Tropical Storm Bret, the second storm of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season that runs from June 1 to November 30.

The disturbance was drifting south and was expected to turn slowly north-northwest on Monday, dumping up to 3 inches of rain on the northwest Bahamas and roiling the surf on some the islands' beaches.

It was forecast to move away from central Florida, where the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to land on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jane Sutton)