Hot spot situation 'more under control': Jakarta

INDONESIA - Indonesia's haze-fighting efforts have borne fruit, with the number of hot spots down from a high of 265 to seven last Friday, and the size of the affected area a quarter of what it was, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said on Saturday.

The situation is becoming "more under control", he told reporters after meeting his Singapore and Malaysian counterparts. He said that was due to efforts in cloud-seeding and water-bombing the burning areas, and propitious weather.

"We must continue these efforts... this is a commitment by the Indonesian government to ensure that we address this problem in a comprehensive way," he said.

Some 2,800 military personnel and 3,000 civilians, along with helicopters and other aircraft, are involved in the effort.

Singapore's Mr K. Shanmugam initiated the one-hour informal meeting in Brunei so that the ministers of the three most affected countries could come to some solution before today's Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM). He termed the reduction in hot spots "substantial".

Earlier on Saturday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a Facebook post that the number of hot spots had fallen steadily over the last few days. "This is good news! I hope the situation continues to improve over the next few weeks," PM Lee added.

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The Pollutant Standards Index in Singapore has hovered within the good to moderate range in the past few days, after soaring to hazardous levels a fortnight ago.

With the area affected down from a high of 16,500ha to 4,081ha, Dr Marty issued a plea for patience, highlighting how it was not typical forest fires that were causing the haze but peatland, where fires are below the surface.

"So while you may not have actual trees burning, the smoke is still coming from... underground. So it is a bit more complicated than what you would imagine it to be, and the fire-fighting capacities are working day in and day out."

Dr Marty and Mr Shanmugam, who met Malaysia's Mr Anifah Aman in a hotel lounge without aides present, both called the session constructive and positive.

The trio also discussed ways to prevent a recurrence of the haze and how to mitigate it. Ideas will be presented to the rest of Asean's foreign ministers at today's AMM.

Mr Shanmugam said he expects a "good statement" on how Asean hopes to deal with the haze after today's meeting.

That is expected to be part of an Asean joint communique, a concluding statement traditionally issued after such meetings.

Singapore has also asked Indonesia to clarify whether Singapore- linked firms are involved in starting fires that caused the haze, after contradictory statements from officials there.

Dr Marty said investigations are ongoing and it was not appropriate to comment. Still, he said, 18 individuals had been arrested so far.

Indonesia is the only country in the region yet to ratify a 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Dr Marty said Jakarta was committed to doing so.

"But the most important thing (is)... we have actually been in full compliance and have essentially followed up on what is required in the agreement - sharing of information," he said.

He pointed to how an upcoming meeting of environment ministers in Malaysia, where the haze will be discussed, was an initiative of Indonesia's back in 2008.

"So, while focusing on ratification, we must also bear in mind the reality that we have also been essentially implementing the agreement irrespective."