[JAKARTA] Indonesian officials investigating forest fires on Sumatra island were taken hostage and threatened with death by a mob allegedly linked to a palm oil company, the environment ministry said.
Seven investigators were sent to Riau province, which is afflicted with serious fires during the dry season every year, to investigate why blazes were burning out of control despite the government's attempts to combat them.
The team arrived at a plantation where a company called Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL) was suspected of using fires to illegally clear land, according to a statement from the ministry.
Fires are set every year on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island to make way for palm oil and pulpwood plantations, often sending toxic smog over neighbouring countries in South-east Asia.
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.
As the team was leaving the plantation, it was stopped by more than 100 men demanding it delete pictures it had taken.
Members were then taken hostage and held in the area for almost 12 hours. During the ordeal the mob intimidated them, threatening to beat them, kill them and dump their bodies in a nearby river, according to the ministry.
The investigators were finally released unharmed after the local police chief and a group of officers intervened.
While the mob appeared to be farmers, the environment minister suspects they were employees of the plantation owner.
"We strongly suspect this illegal activity was facilitated by the company," said Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar in a statement released late Sunday.
Ms Nurbaya condemned the hostage-taking, adding that the ministry would "investigate and punish (the company) firmly".
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 rising numbers 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.