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Thursday, February 26, 1998 Published at 10:58 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Borneo fires 'under control'

Indonesia's Environment minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, has played down the significance of the fires raging in Borneo at a meeting on the island.

"Those fires around settlements are under control. The fires still raging are located in damaged forest areas," Mr Kusumaatmadja told reporters.

Sarwono Kusumaatmadja explains what impact a new action plan wil have
Both Mr Kusumaatmadja and his Malaysian counterpart, Law Hieng Ding, said the scale could not be compared to the fires last year that threw a thick blanket of haze over much of Southeast Asia in 1997.

Nonetheless, a statement from the meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations called for "immediate international assistance".

Mr Kusumaatmadja said that Indonesia would be seeding the clouds moving towards the affected areas to cause rain.

"It can be serious if it is neglected," he said.

[ image:  ]
According to the Environment minister, about 4,000 hectares of land were burning in Indonesia's Kalimentan provice on Borneo, and some small-scale fires had broken out on Sumatra island.

"We don't really know the characteristics of the fire. All these forests have lost their humid characteristics and this is also a new phenomenon.

"We are dealing with fires that are unique, almost one of a kind in the world. Eventually, the test of our efforts is how we prevent the fires from breaking out in the first place."

[ image: Smog smothered much of SE Asia in 1997]
Smog smothered much of SE Asia in 1997
However, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent said that there is dismay in the region at the failure of the Indonesian authorities to punish those responsible for starting the fires.

There is little hope of success for counter measures when the worst drought in years has rendered much of Borneo tinder-dry.

An official from a German fire-fighting team said the fires are burning across an area of at least 300 square kilometres, and only rain can put them out.

The area is in the middle of a drought and no significant natural rain is expected for several months.

The East Kalimantan governor has blamed the fires on land clearance by logging and plantation companies.

Indonesia plans crackdown

Mr Kusumaatmadja said Indonesian police were investigating several companies for allegedly burning without licences and causing a health hazard during last year's bout of smog, and that charges could soon be levelled against the firms.

"The methods normally used for land clearing have proven to be hazardous due to the change in climate," he said. "These practices are no longer suitable."

Malaysian Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding said the Asian Development Bank had allocated $1.2m in the form of a grant for an ASEAN regional action plan and a further one million dollars to Indonesia to assess the impact of last year's fires.

Law said the United States Environment Department had allocated a further $5m in assistance.

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