Indonesia Receives Offers of Aid to Help Fight Fires

Posted on Thu, 25 Sep 1997 19:14:09 GMT

The thick blanket of smoke that now covers much of southeast Asia is bringing offers of help to Indonesia and warnings for travelers.

More than 1,000 Malaysian firefighters have joined 8,500 Indonesians now fighting forest fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands. The fires have been burning for two months and have spread smoke over six countries of southeast Asia, spreading north to Thailand and east to the Philippines.

Most of the fires have been blamed on slash-and-burn agriculture as plantation owners and small farmers burn off land for new crops in advance of the monsoon season.

Two deaths have been blamed on the smoke and haze. More than 32,000 residents of Sumatra and Borneo have been treated for respiratory problems.

On Wednesday, the World Bank offered emergency funding saying the smog is "a terrible situation."

Japan has offered Indonesia equipment and expertise to fight the fires and two forestry experts from Canada are to arrive this weekend. Australia has said it would assess the damage and offer assistance.

The U.S. State Department has sent a cautionary note to its citizens traveling to Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia that air pollution has reached unhealthy levels. The British Foreign Office warned travelers with respiratory or heart problems to seek medical advice. "All visitors should limit outdoor and physical activity," a spokesman said.

Reuters news service reports that British-based travel agent Thomas Cook is refusing to take new bookings for vacation holidays in affected areas.

A forestry expert said there were growing fears that huge tracts of peat underlying the rain forests could catch fire -- resulting in a much more serious situation. There have already been reports of peat catching fire, but the size of the problem is not yet known. Peat fires in some parts of the world are known to have burned for hundreds of years.

The Associated Press, Reuters News Service, Agence France Presse, the Hong Kong Standard and the South China Morning Post contributed to this report.

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