Indonesia rebuffs nations’ offer to help douse fires

Pekanbaru, August 12:

Indonesia was battling forest fires with buckets of water today, refusing offers by other Asian nations to help douse the blazes that have blanketed neighbouring Malaysia in choking, yellowish haze, even as Malaysia’s prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi vowed to act against Malaysian plantation companies caught burning forests in Indonesia, saying he feels

“wretched” about their alleged contributions to a pall of noxious haze. More than 300 fires were raging on Sumatra island, and Indonesia, short on resources, was being encouraged to tap into an inventory of equipment and manpower maintained by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). “Indonesia is saying they have already mobilised domestic fire resources,” ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng-Yong said. “What we are saying is that more is needed to put out the fires.”

Many of the blazes have been set in the last 10 days by farmers, plantation owners and miners who — as in past years — are taking advantage of the dry season to clear brush and old wood from the land. Most of the noxious fumes have blown across the narrow Strait of Malacca to Malaysia, which is experiencing its worst ecological crisis in years. The haze reduced visibility to less than a kilometre in many places. Schools were closed, and hospitals filled with patients complaining of respiratory ailments. Malaysia said today it was ready to send 100 firefighters and 25 disaster management experts to Sumatra. But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, while saying he welcomed cooperation from his neighbour, has yet to give a green light. He denied allegations that Indonesia was not doing enough.

“We are taking this very seriously,” said Yudhoyono’s spokesman, Dino Pati Djalal. “The president understands the health and economic impact the fires have, not just in Indonesia but regionally. He has promised to mobilise national and provincial resources to put out the fires.” Indonesia was also coming under attack for being the only member of ASEAN that hasn’t ratified an agreement on haze pollution.