[KUALA LUMPUR] Rain and favourable winds have brought blue skies to vast areas of Southeast Asia stricken for weeks by hazardous smoke from Indonesian fires, with officials expressing hope Thursday that the crisis could end soon.
Parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore enjoyed their clearest skies in weeks, while affected areas of the Philippines and Thailand also have seen an end to air pollution that has sickened tens of thousands across the region and caused flight cancellations and school closures.
Malaysia's top weather forecaster went so far as to declare that the region's rainy season - feared delayed due to the El Nino weather phenomenon, prolonging the environmental disaster - was beginning.
"The northeast monsoon has arrived. It is the raining season for Malaysia," said Che Gayah Ismail, director-general of the country's Meteorological Department.
"We should have blue skies and no more haze because the northeast monsoon winds will blow the haze from Indonesia's forest fires into the Indian Ocean," she told AFP.
Indonesian authorities were more guarded, but also said further rains were expected.
Recent rainfall on the huge islands of Sumatra and Borneo - where hundreds of forest and agricultural fires have smouldered for weeks - have helped reduce the smoke clouds, said Indonesia's disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
Affected communities "welcomed this with joy and said grace after two months of being held captive to haze," Mr Sutopo said in a statement.
The rains there included both natural precipitation and artificially induced showers from cloud-seeding, he added.
Indonesia's national weather agency has forecast more rain, which will allow for further extensive cloud-seeding activities, Mr Sutopo said.
The fires and resulting haze occur to varying degrees annually during the dry season as land is illegally cleared by burning, stoking tensions between Indonesia and its smog-hit neighbours Malaysia and Singapore.
But experts had warned this year's outbreak was on track to become the worst yet, exacerbated by El Nino's bone-dry conditions.
The US-based World Resources Institute said earlier this month that the fires were spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each day than the United States, the world's second-largest emitter of the gases blamed for global warming.
Indonesia this month agreed to accept international help after failing for weeks to douse the fires, and has employed dozens of planes and thousands of personnel on the ground.
But the fires are typically only brought fully under control by November with the onset of the rainy season.
Haze-hit central and southern areas of the Philippines also have been aided by the departure of Typhoon Koppu last week, which authorities said had created winds that pulled the haze into the country's skies.