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Friday, September 26, 1997

Fire Haze a Disaster, Indonesia Declares

But No State of Emergency Yet


By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune
KUCHING, Malaysia - As this smokebound city endured another day of choking fumes Thursday, neighboring Indonesia declared a national disaster and called on ''all levels of society'' to mobilize against the forest fires that have left several countries in the region under a thick, gray haze.

But President Suharto of Indonesia stopped short of declaring a state of emergency, a move taken by Malaysian officials here last week that closed schools, businesses and nonessential government offices.

''The president has instructed officials in the central government and the regions to mobilize to overcome the disaster,'' State Secretary Murdiono said after meeting with Mr. Suharto.

He did not elaborate, but Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said that coordination was improving among various ministries to deal with the situation, Reuters reported from Jakarta.

The state of emergency continued Thursday in Kuching, capital of Malaysia's Sarawak state.

The city's main hospital continued to receive a stream of patients suffering from respiratory problems. More than 10,000 people have sought treatment at government clinics in Sarawak for haze-related illnesses since the state of emergency was imposed, according to the Malaysian medical and health services department.

In Indonesia, where tens of thousands are reported to be ailing, at least twodeaths have been blamed on the pollution. At Sarawak General Hospital, doctors were not the only ones wearing surgical masks in the emergency room. Patients and relatives also wore masks to help fend off the haze, which often penetrates indoors a persistent burning smell and causes eye irritation.

But doctors in Kuching said that fewer people had been admitted for treatment Thursday; haze levels were lower than those earlier this week.

Shops and restaurants remained open throughout the day, and the city's airport, shut for most of the week, was reopened.

Some 1,500 passengers, many of whom had been stranded for days, secured seats on flights leaving for peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.

''The air here is choking and making me sick,'' a German passenger, Tanja Steinhart, told Agence France-Presse at the airport.

''We wasted a lot of money on food and hotel bills.''

In addition to Sarawak, a popular tourist destination for its rain forests, the haze has spread to other tourist spots in the region, including the Thai resort island of Phuket and beaches in southern parts of the Philippines.

The United States, Britain, Germany and Denmark have issued travel advisories warning their citizens against traveling to countries affected by the haze.

Officials in the region have lowered their estimates for tourist arrivals, which is bad news for Southeast Asia's battered economies.

Efforts to fight the source of the haze - fires burning out of control in Indonesia - continued Thursday.

Jakarta announced that it had allocated 3.1 billion rupiah ($1 million) to the cause and had deployed 8,437 fire fighters throughout the country.

They are joined by more than 1,000 Malaysian fire fighters, who on Wednesday were sent to Sumatra, a center of forest fires.

Indonesian officials have also announced that Japan has offered to contribute 300 high-powered water shootersto help extinguish the fires and that France has offered to send advisers.

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimated Thursday that areas burned or afire in Indonesia totaled 500,000 to 600,000 hectares (1.2 million to 1.5 million acres).

The end of the dry season has provided ideal conditions for fast-spreading forest fires. Farmers, too, set fire to large swaths of land as a quick way of clearing brush.

The haze in Sarawak stems mainly from fires in Kalimantan, Indonesian territory in the southern part of Borneo island.

The problems of both the haze and water shortages throughout the region should be relieved by monsoon rains, which are expected in mid-October.

When rain fell in Kuching on Wednesday, however, residents were told to seek shelter because there was a risk that the rain could contain dangerous levels of pollutants.


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