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Indonesia accepts international help to combat fires

Thursday, October 8, 2015 - 12:40
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This picture taken on Oct 7, 2015 shows Indonesian firefighters putting out a blaze in Banyuasin, South Sumatra.

[JAKARTA] Indonesia has agreed to accept international help to combat forest and agricultural fires that are cloaking Southeast Asia in haze after weeks of failed attempts to douse the blazes, officials said on Thursday.

Fires illegally started to clear land for plantations in Indonesia have shrouded Singapore and Malaysia in acrid smog, worsening air quality, closing schools and forcing the cancellation of outdoor events.

The blazes are an annual occurrence during the dry season, but scientists have warned this year's are on track to be the worst ever due to an El Nino weather system that has created tinder-dry conditions in Indonesia.

Jakarta has deployed about 25,000 personnel and aircraft to combat the blazes on Sumatra island and the Indonesian part of Borneo, but the fire-fighters have seemed overwhelmed by the extent of the fires.

Tensions have been rising between Jakarta and its neighbours as the haze spreads, with Singapore's biggest supermarket chain on Wednesday withdrawing paper products made by an Indonesia-owned company accused over the haze.

Authorities had rejected offers of help from affluent Singapore, but officials said Thursday Indonesian President Joko Widodo had announced that international assistance would now be accepted at a cabinet meeting a day earlier.

"It was agreed that we will cooperate with a number of our partners in our efforts to suppress the forest fires," foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told AFP.

"We are working with a number of countries including Singapore." Other countries who may help Indonesia in tackling the fires include Malaysia, Russia, Australia and China, he said, adding that the specifics had not yet been agreed.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post late on Wednesday his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi had "indicated that Indonesia will now take up our offer".

Singapore has offered to provide Indonesia with aircraft to artificially induce rain and carry out water-bombing, as well as personnel to help fight the blazes.

"The kind of assistance needed will be related to measures to put out the fires, like water-bombing and creating artificial rain, as the areas affected this time are far larger than in previous years," Indonesian presidential spokesman Ari Dwipayana told AFP.

AFP