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(Reuters) - The powerful Hurricane Jose was moving away from the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, giving some relief to the Caribbean archipelago battered by the massive storm Irma earlier this week.

Islands such as Barbuda, Saint Martin and Anguilla suffered major damage when Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, tore through them, killing at least eight on Saint Martin alone, and islanders had waited anxiously for news of Jose.

However, by 2 p.m. eastern time, Jose, a Category 4 storm, was 95 miles (155 km) east north-east of the northern Leeward Islands and moving away from them. All hurricane warnings had been downgraded to lesser alerts, the NHC said.

Garfield Burford, director of news at government-owned broadcaster ABS TV and Radio in Antigua and Barbuda, said the nation breathed a "collective sigh of relief" once word filtered out that Jose would not plough directly into Barbuda.

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, described Barbuda as "barely habitable" after Irma slammed into the island with 185 m/p/h (297 km/p/h) winds, destroying homes, snapping trees and killing at least one person there.

"Barbuda is almost like the poster child of the kind of devastation Irma caused," said Burford at ABS.

The government ordered a mandatory evacuation of Barbuda, with only about ten people refusing to leave, Burford added.

According to the NHC's forecasts, Jose is due to weaken gradually as it heads northwest into Atlantic waters away from land, and should eventually peter out towards mid-week.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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