Malaysia sent a team of 100 firemen to neighbouring Indonesia on Monday to help douse forest fires that have blanketed the region in noxious haze.
SUBANG, Malaysia/JAKARTA Malaysia sent a team of 100 firemen to neighbouring 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 neighbours 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 resorts.
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 neighbours.
"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 neighbouring 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 criticise 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, plantion-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 Tuesday.
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 reporters.
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 said.
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.
(Additional reporting by Barani Krishnan and Mark Bendeich in Kuala Lumpur and Ade Rina in Jakarta)