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Richard Galpin
describes the scene after discovering a hillside on fire
 real 28k

The BBC's Robert Piggot reports
"It's become an annual event in Indonesia's forests"
 real 28k

Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 16:15 GMT
Anti-pollution steps in Sumatra

Not everyone in Pekanbaru took warnings seriously
Government workers on the Indonesian island of Sumatra are distributing cotton masks to the public after heavy rain failed to disperse a thick smoky haze caused by forest fires.

There are fears that the region will see a repeat of the 1997 environmental catastrophe, when a choking smog caused by massive fires in the jungles enveloped several south-east Asian countries.

Haze could be damaging to health
Up to 400 hot spots have been detected in the forests that surround the city of Pekanbaru in Sumatra's Riau province and the dry season is just about to begin.

However, with the skies a little clearer after the rain, many Pekanbaru residents ignored warnings to stay indoors and refused the offer of protective masks.

The BBC's Richard Galpin, who is in the area, described the situation as "apocalyptic".

"We came across large areas of land that were on fire," he said. "Smoke filling up the sky, huge flames and the sun literally blocked out by the smog. There was a whole hillside on fire."

'Hazardous pollution'

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid said his government would take all steps possible to stop the fires.

"I have instructed the cabinet ministers to take measures to handle the problem. The fires are producing hazardous pollution," he said after a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Jakarta.

Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore, where some haze has already been detected, have urged Indonesia to crack down on loggers and plantation owners who set the fires as a cheap, but illegal, means of clearing land.

An official in Pekanbaru said on Thursday that offenders have already been warned and would be named and punished.

"An investigation team is still processing the case," the official, Aris Wandi, said. "In three days, we will punish the guilty ones."

Environment Minister Soni Keraf said on Wednesday that the fires were "a national disaster".

The country has warned logging companies that they could be forced out if they are found to be responsible.

Repeat offenders

In Pekanbaru, visibility was down to 150-200 metres during the daytime earlier in the week.

Early effects have been felt in Singapore
The plantation owners and logging companies have been accused of clearing land illegally to make way for more palm, rubber and coconut trees.

Ardi Yusuf of the Sumatran Environmental Supervisory Agency's forestry division said there were fires in palm plantations of two foreign-owned companies who were responsible for pollution in 1998.

Tests have shown the pollution index at 313. A reading of more than 300 is considered dangerous to health, while a normal level is less than 50.

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See also:

03 Mar 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Forest fires rage in Sumatra
25 Feb 98 |  Analysis
Haze - who starts the fires?
13 Apr 98 |  Asia-Pacific
Brunei chokes in thick smoke haze
26 Feb 98 |  Analysis
Haze - what can be done?
01 Aug 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Return of the Asian haze
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