World

Indonesia arrests 185 over haze-causing forest fires

Nearly 150,000 people being treated for acute respiratory infections from smog

JAKARTA: Indonesia arrested nearly 200 people over vast forest fires ripping across the archipelago, police said yesterday, as toxic haze sent air quality levels plummeting and sparked flight cancellations.

Jakarta has deployed thousands of personnel to battle fires consuming forests in Sumatra and Borneo islands, where thousands of schools have been shut over health fears.

The fires - usually started by illegal burning to clear land for farming - have unleashed choking haze in South-east Asia, triggering diplomatic tensions with Malaysia.

Yesterday, the authorities said they had arrested 185 people suspected of being involved in activities that led to out-of-control fires sweeping the country.

"Indonesian police will enforce the law against anyone who is proven to have carried out forest and land burning, whether it was done intentionally or through negligence," national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo told reporters.

"This is a last resort. The most important thing is prevention."

Four corporations were also being investigated, he added.

Last week, Indonesia sealed off dozens of plantations where fires were blazing and warned that owners - including Malaysia and Singapore-based companies - could face criminal charges if there was evidence of illegal burning.

Some of the most serious fires occur in peatlands, which are highly combustible when drained of water to be converted into plantations.

"It's so much harder to fight fires on peatlands,"Mr Hendri Kusnardi said outside smog-hit Pekanbaru in Sumatra.

"Even after we've managed to put out a fire on the ground, sometimes it is not over because it's still burning underground.

"And then the next morning the ground fire will just reignite."

Indonesia has deployed water-bombing helicopters, but the onset of the rainy season, which usually starts in October, could be the only thing able to douse the fires.

Said Mr Michael Brady, an Indonesia-based peatlands expert at the Centre for International Forestry Research: "Water-bombing is not very effective because you just can't drop enough water (to douse the flames)."

Thick haze in Borneo caused the cancellation of about a dozen flights on Sunday, national airline Garuda said.

Rival Lion Air said about 160 Borneo flights had been affected at the weekend, AFP reported.

Nearly 150,000 people have been treated for acute respiratory infections linked to the haze in recent months, according to Indonesian health authorities.

In Malaysia, where the haze has hit unhealthy levels in several states, the Selangor government has decided to get tough with people who start open fires.

It will confiscate land from farmers who keep using open burning, Bernama reported.

Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari said: "Open burning for carrying out agricultural activities has, to some extent, worsened the haze situation hitting the country." - AFP

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