Indonesia's Yudhoyono to follow up on haze apology

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has personally checked the preparation of a special task force to accelerate efforts against the severe haze which has been a serious transboundary problem affecting Singapore and Malaysia in the past week. The President has called on the 2,300 members of the task force to do a "good job" in overcoming the haze.

INDONESIA - Just one day after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised to irritated neighbours Singapore and Malaysia for the uncontrollable forest fires in Riau, he personally checked the preparation of a special task force to accelerate the efforts against the severe haze at Halim Perdanakusuma Air Force base in East Jakarta on Tuesday.

On Monday the President scolded his top aides for making confrontational remarks against the two neighbours after they strongly complained that the Indonesian government did little to stop the haze, which has blanketed Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for several days. Apparently, nature was at least helpful on Tuesday evening when it brought rain in Riau.

The task force consists of members of the Indonesian Military (TNI), the National Police, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) as well as Health Ministry, social and forestry affairs officials.

During an official ceremony dispatching the team Yudhoyono called on the 2,300 members of the task force to do a "good job" in overcoming the haze.

"Do you understand your assignment? […] Please do a good job," Yudhoyono said.

BNPB chief Syamsul Maarif said the government would appoint another 3,049 personnel to join the efforts.

Riau Haze Disaster Response Task Force commander Brig. Gen. Teguh Rahardjo said the additional reinforcements would be stationed in the worst-hit areas, especially in regencies and mayoralties bordering the Malacca Strait.

"The Marines will be posted in areas around Dumai and Rokan Hilir, while other troops will help firefighters in Pelalawan and Indragiri Hilir. Today, they will be assigned to the fires that have been difficult to douse," Teguh said at the Roesmin Nurjadin Airbase in Pekanbaru, Riau.

"The current major obstacle in the field is water shortage. There is no problem with the water sources especially for water bombing by helicopters, but the land firefighting team has encountered problems in reaching the water sources, that's why they need long hoses," he added.

The haze, which was caused by forest and peatland fires last week, covered parts of the province such as Bengkalis, Dumai, Pekanbaru and Rokan Hilir, as well as Singapore and Malaysia, which stated they were in a national state of emergency.

Representatives of the Malaysian government are expected to meet Yudhoyono on Wednesday to have further discussions on the matter.

Singapore, which claimed to have suffered the worst levels of pollution in 16 years, urged Indonesia to provide data on companies and concession maps to enable it to act against plantation firms that allow slash-and-burn farming.

In Riau, as many as 270 people in Rokan Hilir regency have been forced to evacuate as fires have moved closer to human settlements.

The Transportation Ministry asked all airlines to avoid flying over Pekanbaru and Riau, which is still blanketed with thick haze from raging land and forest fires.

"The directorate general of Air Transportation has issued a Notice to Airmen [NOTAM] No. WRRR-80899/13 on forecasts and creating rain warnings, which takes effect from June 24 to 30, starting at 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time," said the ministry's head of public communications, Bambang S. Ervan, as quoted by Antara news agency.

Regarding the cause of the fires, preliminary investigations have singled out eight plantation companies owned by Malaysian investors as the source of forest fires in Riau.

Former National Police chief detective Comr. Gen. (ret.) Ito Sumardi, who led the Riau Police between 2005 and 2006, suggested Riau Police chief Brig. Gen. Condro Kirono should join forces with governmental officials and businesspeople in efforts to put out the slash-and-burn fires.

Ito said some agricultural firms usually ordered their contractors to clear land. "The firms paid the contractors about Rp 2.5 million [US$252.5] for clearing a hectare of land. Now, the rate is Rp 5 million per hectare. Then, the contractors gave farmers Rp 1 million to do the job."