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Indonesian fire investigators taken hostage, face death threats

[JAKARTA] Indonesian officials investigating forest fires were taken hostage and threatened with death by a mob allegedly linked to a palm oil company, prompting activists Monday to decry a law enforcement crisis.

A seven-strong team on Sumatra island, which is afflicted with serious fires during the dry season every year, were probing why blazes were burning out of control despite the government's attempts to combat them.

But as they examined a plantation where a company called Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) was suspected of using fires to illegally clear land, a 100-strong gang forced them to delete photos and then took them hostage.

They mob - suspected to be APSL employees - threatened to beat them, kill them and dump their bodies in a nearby river. They were finally released unharmed after 12 hours when police intervened, according to the environment ministry.

The case highlights the difficulty Indonesia faces in fighting fires that flare annually on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo. The blazes are set to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations, shrouding Southeast Asia in toxic smog.

Last year's fires were among the worst in living memory. For weeks they cloaked large parts of Indonesia, as well as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, with haze that caused tens of thousands to fall ill and disrupted air travel.

Indonesia has cracked down on illegal burning by strengthening regulations and arresting hundreds accused over the practice.

But laws set by the central government are often flouted across the archipelago of over 17,000 islands where power is heavily decentralised and corruption rife, and many fires still occur every year Greenpeace said the hostage-taking showed how Jakarta's response to the blazes was "being hampered by a crisis in law enforcement".

Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Indonesia Forest Campaigner, said the group "calls on the president to send a clear message on forest fire law enforcement - that he supports, and expects maximum effort from, the minister for environment and forestry and the chief of national police".

The team were taken hostage late Friday after the mob forced them to delete pictures of alleged illegal burning. The environment minister said she suspected they were employees of the plantation owner.

While the pictures taken by the team on the ground were deleted, others captured by a drone were saved and the ministry believes it has evidence that fires were illegally started.

APSL could not be reached for comment.

Six Indonesian provinces have issued an alert due to the rising number of fires, prompting planes and helicopters to be deployed to combat the blazes.

However the fires have not been as serious this year as in 2015, with city-state Singapore suffering just one day of serious haze so far.