Indonesian president apologizes over haze

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A photo released by National Disaster Mitigation Agency shows an Indonesian government rescue helicopter taking off for a water bombing mission from an airport in Pekanbaru to battle a large forest fire in Riau province in Indonesia’s Sumatra island on Sunday.

JAKARTA: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologized to Singapore and Malaysia after they were cloaked in thick haze from raging forest fires on Sumatra island.

“As the president of Indonesia, I apologise for what has happened and ask for the understanding of the people of Malaysia and Singapore,” he said on Monday.

“We accept it is our responsibility to tackle the problem.”

Yudhoyono’s comments were a bid to ease tensions after the haze triggered a war of words between Jakarta and its neighbors, with an Indonesian minister at one point accusing Singapore of acting “like a child.”

The fires burning in hundreds of hectares of peatland have triggered Singapore’s worst environmental crisis for a decade, with acrid smoke shrouding residential buildings and downtown skyscrapers.

While the haze has eased in the city-state in recent days, it has moved further north to Malaysia.

On Monday, much of the country continued to wheeze under a shroud of smoke with its southern half hit particularly hard.

In the capital Kuala Lumpur, the pollution index neared the “very unhealthy” 200 level for the first time during the current outbreak.

Schools in Kuala Lumpur and several states were ordered to close and authorities advised parents to keep children indoors or make them wear facemasks outside.

Indonesia has sought to extinguish the fires by using helicopters and planes for water-bombing and cloud-seeding, which chemically induces rain, but officials say the efforts have so far had little success.

Thick haze continued to shroud Riau province, where the blazes are centered, on Monday, leading to two flights being turned back from the airport in the provincial capital Pekanbaru, state news agency Antara reported.

Smog from Sumatra is a recurring problem during the June-September dry season, when plantations and smallholders set fires to prepare land for cultivation despite a legal ban.

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