Yudhoyono tries to put out the fire from critics

JAKARTA - Apparently annoyed by the ongoing debate on the haze that has blanketed Singapore and Kuala Lumpur over the past few days, President Susilo Bambang Yudho-yono held another press conference on Wednesday to prevent further misunderstanding.

The press conference, held at Halim Perdanakusuma Air Force Base in East Jakarta, came just one day after he personally checked on the progress of a special task force appointed to accelerate efforts to put out the fires in Riau. The President was also forced to apologise to Singapore and Malaysia just two days ago after his top aides made confrontational remarks against the two nations.

The President said reports by international media were exaggerated and gave a bad impression of Indonesia to the world.

"I read that Indonesia was considered to have polluted the Singapore air since 2007," he said. "I think it is too much; I believe that Singapore and Indonesia equally get the benefits from bilateral cooperation, especially in the economic field."

He argued this year's haze was extraordinary and blamed extreme weather and heat, as well as the human factor.

Malaysia declared a state of emergency in some areas as air pollution reached hazardous levels. Singapore also urged people to remain indoors due to "hazardous" levels of pollution.

While the haze irks neighbouring countries, Yudhoyono's apology stirred debate among local politicians.

The President questioned those who accused him of taking orders from Singapore by deploying a massive task force - involving 2,300 personnel from the Indonesian Military, the National Police, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) and officials from the health, social and forestry ministries - to put out the fire.

"It is a weird question - no other country has the right to give orders to Indonesia and no one can instruct me as the President of a sovereign country," he said.

Indonesia should accept M'sian help
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Yudhoyono said he saw on social media that some people misunderstood the government's efforts and thought he was afraid of Singapore and Malaysia.

It is believed the fires started as a result of slash-and-burn farming practices; companies based in Malaysia and Singapore have been implicated in the problem.

Singapore urged Indonesia to provide data on companies and concession maps to allow it to act against firms practicing slash-and-burn farming.

Meanwhile, cloud seeding efforts in Riau brought good results with the number of hot spots reportedly falling from 263 on Monday to only 55 on Tuesday.

Hot spot numbers were further reduced on Wednesday with three reported in Rokan Hilir regency, two in Bengkalis regency and one in Pelalawan regency.

Nur Alim, weather radar chief technician at the Meteorology, Geophysics and Climatology Agency (BMKG) Pekanbaru office, said the drop was a result of Monday's rainmaking efforts.

"Cloud seeding on Wednesday morning induced rain in Dumai city and Bengkalis, Pelalawan, Indragiri Hulu and Indragiri Hilir regencies, he told The Jakarta Post.

Alim stressed that the hot spots were at risk of reigniting because the rain only extinguished peat land surface fires; underneath it is still smoldering.

Separately, residents in neighbouring North Sumatra suffered from haze caused by land burning in the province.

Head of data and information at BMKG's Polonia office in Medan, Mega Sirait, confirmed the haze had not originated from Riau because the wind blew northeast toward Malaysia and Singapore.

"The affected areas included Medan and Pematang Siantar mayoralties as well as Simalungun, Padang Lawas, Mandailing Natal, Labuhan Batu, Labuhan Batu Selatan and North Padang Lawas regencies," Mega told the Post.