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Indonesia sorry for haze, sends thousands to fight fires
by Staff Writers
Jakarta (AFP) June 25, 2013

Southeast Asia smog crisis eases as rain douses fires
Dumai, Indonesia (AFP) June 26, 2013 - Fires in Indonesia that have blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in thick smog eased Wednesday after heavy rain, boosting hopes of an end to Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crisis for years.

The news came as a report said the crisis had claimed its first victim with the death of an asthmatic woman in southern Malaysia, which has been badly affected.

The smog from slash-and-burn agricultural fires on Sumatra island pushed haze levels to a record high in Singapore last week, shrouding residential buildings and downtown skyscrapers.

Favourable winds have since cleared the air over the city-state but southern Malaysia remains choked by smoke.

Indonesia deployed thousands of reinforcements on Tuesday to fight the fires, which are centred in Riau province. They are backed by aircraft dropping water and chemically inducing rain by cloud-seeding.

Their efforts were helped when rain fell late Tuesday and early Wednesday in several areas of Riau, officials and residents said.

On Wednesday morning, the number of fire hotspots had fallen to 54 from 265 the previous day, national disaster agency official Agus Wibowo told AFP from Riau.

"The rain has definitely helped our efforts," he said. "With the improving weather on our side, we are taking the opportunity to quickly fight the blazes on land."

The fires have been hard to put out as they are burning under the surface of carbon-rich peat, meaning hoses need to be pushed into the ground to douse the flames.

Conditions had improved dramatically in the badly-hit city of Dumai, in Riau, on Wednesday after a storm broke at dawn, according to an AFP reporter.

"We were so hoping for rainwater because our water supply for bathing and washing clothes had run out," said Lisa Rahmawati, a 25-year-old secretary.

In Malaysia, pollution has spiked to hazardous levels in some places in recent days, with the south seeing its worst air quality in 16 years last weekend.

The smog had eased Wednesday but continued to hang over some areas including the capital Kuala Lumpur.

The Sun newspaper said Li Cai Ling, a resident of the southern town of Muar -- which saw intense air pollution at the weekend -- died on Sunday with a medical report blaming the polluted air.

The situation has also forced newly-promoted English Premier League side Cardiff City to cancel a Malaysia visit that was set to begin this week.

The club said in a statement posted on its website on Tuesday that it has abandoned the scheduled week-long trip to Malaysia -- home of its billionaire owner Vincent Tan -- "due to the current poor air quality in the region".

Haze is an annual problem during drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from forest fires and slash-and-burn land-clearing on the huge Indonesian island of Sumatra, which lies across the Malacca Strait.

But this summer's recurrence has been the worst in years.

Malaysia's environment minister travelled to Indonesia on Wednesday morning to meet his counterpart in the hopes of resolving the problem, which earlier sparked a testy exchange between Indonesia and Singapore.

In 1997-1998, a severe bout of haze cost Southeast Asia an estimated $9 billion from disruptions to air travel and other business activities.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised to Singapore and Malaysia over fires that have cloaked the countries in thick haze, as thousands of emergency workers were deployed Tuesday to tackle the blazes.

Southeast Asia's worst smog crisis for years pushed haze levels in Singapore to a record high last week, with residential buildings and skyscrapers shrouded and daily life for millions in the city-state dramatically affected.

The smog has drifted north and is now badly affecting Malaysia, while in a badly-hit province on Indonesia's Sumatra island -- where the fires are raging in peatland -- hundreds gathered to pray for rain.

The crisis has triggered a war of words between Jakarta and its neighbours, with an Indonesian minister accusing Singapore of acting "like a child". But Yudhoyono sought to ease tensions by issuing a public apology late Monday.

"As the president of Indonesia, I apologise for what has happened and ask for the understanding of the people of Malaysia and Singapore," he said. "We accept it is our responsibility to tackle the problem."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore accepted Yudhoyono's "gracious" apology, adding: "We need a permanent solution to prevent this problem from recurring annually."

Indonesia had previously sought to deflect blame for the crisis, saying Singaporean and Malaysian companies who own plantations on Sumatra were also responsible.

But Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said late Monday the question of who owns the plantations "is not the issue here" and called on Jakarta to take action against those responsible, national news agency Bernama reported.

Police in Riau province, where the fires are centred, said they had arrested nine people so far on suspicion of starting the blazes, all small palm oil farmers.

Smog from Sumatra is a recurring problem during the June-September dry season, when big companies and smallholders alike light fires to clear land, in a cheap but illegal method of clearing space for planting.

Several big palm oil companies have been accused of lighting fires on their concessions in Sumatra, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) said Tuesday it would investigate five of its members over the allegations.

The RSPO, which produces a sought-after certification for producers deemed sustainable, bans its members from using burning to clear land.

Southeast Asia suffered its worst smog outbreak in 1997-98, which cost the region an estimated $9 billion, and was hit with a serious recurrence in 2006.

Indonesia's national disaster agency said Tuesday that more than 3,000 personnel -- including members of the army, air force and police -- would be sent over the next two days to Riau to join some 2,300 already tackling the blazes.

Firefighters are backed by helicopters and planes dropping water and attempting to chemically induce rain through cloud-seeding.

After efforts in previous days proved ineffective, cloud-seeding managed to successfully induce rains in several parts of Riau on Tuesday, officials said.

While the smog has lifted from Singapore, which was enjoying its third straight sunny day on Tuesday after the air pollution index eased from the all-time highs of last week, Malaysia is now bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Air quality was "hazardous" in two Malaysian districts, including the country's busiest port, Port Klang on the Strait of Malacca facing Sumatra, where the readings stood at 484 mid-morning Tuesday.

Readings above 300 indicate "hazardous" conditions. Three other areas, mostly in central Malaysia near the capital Kuala Lumpur, logged "very unhealthy" air quality.

In one Riau district almost 300 people were evacuated over the past two days as fires raged close to their houses, and in the province's badly-hit Dumai city hundreds gathered to pray for rain.

"This morning, we prayed to God for rain and for the efforts to fight the haze to be successful," said local environment official Basri, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.



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Malaysia smog worst in 16 years due to Indonesia fires
Kuala Lumpur (AFP) June 23, 2013
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