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Environment

Indonesian forest fires disrupt hundreds of flights

Spreading blazes have sparked a blame game with Malaysia

Firefighters try to extinguish forest fires in Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, on Saturday.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Forest and land fires in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan provinces are spreading, disrupting hundreds of flights and sparking a blame game with officials from neighboring Malaysia.

Indonesia's largest carrier, privately-owned Lion Air Group, canceled at least 81 flights, delayed 63 and diverted nine other on Sunday alone. State-owned Garuda Indonesia and its budget subsidiary Citilink reported at least 18 cancellations. As of Monday noon, the poor visibility stemming from smog disrupted operations of 11 airports in Kalimantan and Sumatra, as well as 65 flights, according to Indonesian state-owned air traffic controller company AirNav.

The seasonal forest fires began to spread in July as the country entered its dry season, and the situation has deteriorated rapidly this month. The provinces of Central and West Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island have been worst hit, with online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch Fires reporting over 11,000 fire alerts there in the second week of September.

About 333,000 hectares of land have been hit by fire so far this year, and the blazes are expected to continue until October or early November.

Police blame slash-and-burn activities by oil palm plantation owners and farmers for many of the fires, naming at least 60 suspects in Central Kalimantan. Separately in Jambi, Sumatra, at least 19 people have been arrested, according to local media.

"We saw from a helicopter... that none of the land that has been converted into plantations -- be they oil palm or other industrial tree plantations -- were burned, except for a very few areas on the edges," National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said on Sunday after inspecting the fires in Riau on Sumatra. "This indicates easy and cheap practices of land clearing."

An official at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, or BNPB, said 80% of forest areas that have been hit by past fires in one district of Riau have been converted into plantations.

Local media reported a few deaths stemming from fire and smog, including a four-month-old baby in South Sumatra and a 69-year-old farmer in Riau. Thousands of others are reportedly suffering from respiratory problems.

President Joko Widodo is scheduled to fly to Riau on Monday evening to review the situation on ground.

Kuala Lumpur is shrouded with haze on Sunday.   © AP

The forest fires have sparked complaints from Malaysia, which last week closed hundreds of schools in Sarawak, a state on the Malaysian side of Borneo.

Some small airports in Malaysia have paused operation, though Kuala Lumpur International Airport -- the country's main air hub -- is running normally.

As of Monday morning, four districts in the country including administrative capital Putrajaya have seen the air pollution index reaching above 200 -- a "very unhealthy" air quality.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has called for joint affirmative action by both his country and Indonesia, while authorities in both countries are blaming each other on the cause of the transboundary haze.

Mahathir said Sunday he would write a letter to Widodo to seek a long-term solution for the haze issue, an almost annual affair in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Indonesia's Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said forest fires have also been detected in Malaysia.

BNPB said 1,500 military personnel have been dispatched to help extinguish fires, as have planes carrying water bombs and for cloud seeding.

A group of Indonesian NGOs slammed the Jakarta government on Monday for its "slow response" to the crisis.

"Vulnerable groups such as babies, toddlers, kids, women and the elderly [are the] most affected from this smog emergency," the NGOs said in a statement. "This smog is not an ordinary crime; it is ecocide and a cross-border crime with far-reaching impact."

Nikkei staff writers P Prem Kumar in Kuala Lumpur, Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta and Dylan Loh in Singapore contributed to this story.

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