August 15, 2005

Malaysian firemen help Indonesia to fight blazes

By Bazuki Muhammad and Muklis Ali

SUBANG, Malaysia/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Malaysia sent a team
of 100 firemen to neighboring Indonesia on Monday to help douse
forest fires that have blanketed the region in noxious haze.

The fires, many deliberately lit on Indonesia's Sumatra
island to clear land for agriculture, are once again testing
relations between the two Southeast Asian neighbors after the
smoke caused Malaysia's worst pollution crisis in eight years.

For a week until Friday, when a wind change and some rain
cleared Malaysian skies, smoke from Sumatra had plunged some
areas into a gasping semi-darkness, threatening public health,
disrupting shipping, grounding flights and closing schools.

As the 100 firefighters left on the short flight from
Subang military airbase outside Kuala Lumpur, a relatively
light haze could still be seen on Malaysia's far northwest
coast, bringing moderate air pollution to some popular beach

Malaysia sent 25 search and rescue personnel along with the
firefighters as well as 29 tonnes of firefighting equipment.
The search and rescue workers will help with firefighting
unless needed for those in danger.

Australia is sending a team of up to 12 bushfire experts to
Sumatra to help deal with the fires. Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer said the Indonesian government has asked for help from
Australia and the team would travel to Indonesia this week.


Malaysia, fearing a return of thick haze if the fires are
not extinguished, has said Indonesia needs to take quick action
when fires start because of the serious impact on neighbors.

"They need to take quick action as Malaysians are actually
dying because of the haze," Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar
told the New Sunday Times in an interview.

His Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda said on Monday
that Indonesia was concerned about damage to neighboring
countries from the haze, but working together to put out the
fires was better than trying to place blame.

"I think that is the more proper way than to criticize each
other. Action speaks louder. We have enough regulation already.
It is the law enforcement that matters," the Indonesian foreign
minister told reporters in Jakarta.

In 1997, haze from mainly Indonesian fires blotted out
skies across Southeast Asia. The fires are a perennial
irritant, with Indonesia urged to act more quickly and
Malaysian firms accused in turn of being part of the problem.

Malaysia complains Indonesia has yet to ratify a regional
agreement aimed at controlling forest fires in Southeast Asia,
while Indonesians blame Malaysian-owned palm-oil plantations
both in Indonesia and in Malaysia for contributing to the haze.

Malaysia is the biggest producer of palm oil and, during
drier weather at this time of year, plantation-owners sometimes
flout bans on open burning to clear land to plant new trees.


Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has ordered
his commodities minister, Peter Chin, to determine if any
Malaysian firm was behind the forest fires in Indonesia. Chin
is due to meet Malaysian plantation firms in Indonesia on

Indonesian Forestry Minister Malem Sambat Kaban before
meeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reiterated the
criticism of those firms.

"It was those palm plantation companies who did it. They
clear the land by burning. We have the proof," he told

Malaysia had earlier said Jakarta had not backed the
rhetoric with a list, but after meeting Yudhoyono, Kaban named
eight Malaysian companies as suspects.

"It's obvious. They are not allowed to do any burning, it
has to be done with zero burning. They will be punished," he

In Sumatra's Rokan Hilir regency, where some of the worst
fires have been blazing, forestry official Yusman said the
situation was not getting any better.

"The hotspots are reduced (in number) but due to high wind
they have spread," he told Reuters by telephone.