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Indonesia arrests 8 for setting choking fires

by KASPARMAN PILIANG Associated Press on June 25, 2013 10:00 AM

PEKANBARU, Indonesia — Indonesian authorities have arrested eight farmers for setting illegal fires on Sumatra island to clear land after numerous blazes created a thick haze choking parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, police said today.

The farmers were arrested Monday and today after being caught “red-handed,” said local police spokesman Lt. Col. Hermansyah. He did not say whether they were employed by some companies that have been accused of deliberately starting the fires.

About 1,100 residents were forced to flee Rantau Bais and Bangko Pusako villages in Riau province today as acrid smoke from nearby burning peat swamps and palm oil plantations made breathing difficult, Hermansyah said.

“The smoke has hurt their throats and eyes,” said Hermansyah, who like many Indonesians uses one name. “Visibility there is really bad.”

A day after apologizing to neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono deployed 2,000 additional personnel today to fight the fires that have affected air quality and caused respiratory problems among some people. He has called for an investigation, but said it appeared the fires were being caused by natural and human factors.

Indonesia’s environmental minister, Balthasar Kambuaya, told reporters Sunday that authorities were investigating eight plantation companies that may have started the fires.

Riau forestry official Ahmad Saeroji estimated the burned area was around 4,942 acres. Satellite pictures have detected about 200 fires on plantations in the area.

Authorities warned motorists and fishermen in parts of the province to stay home this week due to poor visibility from the haze. However, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency reported today that it was raining in the provincial capital of Pekanbaru and in several hotspots after the government deployed aircraft for cloud seeding.

Each year, forest fires on Sumatra and Borneo islands smother parts of nearby Singapore and Malaysia in haze. The Indonesian government usually blames plantation owners and traditional farmers for illegally setting fires as a cheap way to clear land.

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