PM accepts haze apology, urges swift, sustained action

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's apology for the haze on Tuesday as Jakarta stepped up efforts to stop the burning in Riau.

In a statement responding to Dr Yudhoyono's apology on Monday for the worst haze in the region's history, Mr Lee said that Singapore "wholeheartedly" accepted the "gracious" gesture.

He also welcomed the Indonesian leader's pledge to spare no efforts in tackling the forest fires, and said he hoped for "swift and sustained action" against illegal land-clearing practices.

To that end, PM Lee reiterated Singapore's offer of assistance to the Indonesian authorities to put out the fires, and said the country stands ready to work with neighbours to end haze-related issues.

He called for a "permanent solution to prevent this problem from recurring annually".

Across the Causeway and in Jakarta, the apology also drew plaudits, with Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman saying he "saluted" Dr Yudhoyono.

"I think the most important thing is for us to work together with Indonesia. We cannot just expect Indonesia to solve the problem," he said.

The conciliatory gesture from Indonesia had come in a televised press conference on Monday, where Dr Yudhoyono also chastised officials for statements implying that Singapore and Malaysia had overreacted. He pledged to do more to put out the haze-causing fires.

On Tuesday, he sought to back up that promise by sending off 1,400 more disaster officials, soldiers, police and civil servants to the affected areas, telling them to "overcome the burning and smoke" and to "do it well, complete". They join 2,300 already on the ground, while another 1,600 are slated to head there today.

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) chief Syamsul Maarif told reporters the men would be deployed for aerial operations - cloud-seeding and water-bombing - as well as firefighting operations on the ground.

Meanwhile, Riau officials arrested eight farmers on Monday and yesterday after catching them red-handed in the land-burning act. Local police did not say if they were hired by large firms or had acted of their own accord.

In Singapore, the PSI stayed in the moderate range as the much awaited rain, and some unexpected hail, fell yesterday afternoon.

But with the prospect of the dry season lasting until October, the Government added two new schemes to its slew of haze-related initiatives.

Childcare centres and kindergartens will get financial subsidies to install portable air-conditioning units on their premises, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Separately, the Ministry of Health said that it is providing standing fans and portable air coolers to 15 nursing homes, community hospitals and day- care centres for the elderly.

As the changing winds sent the haze to its southern part, Thailand expressed support for Malaysia's suggestion to bring forward a regional ministerial meeting on transboundary haze pollution. Singapore also backs the move.