SINGAPORE: Indonesia on Thursday stepped up efforts to combat forest fires which have spewed smoke over much of Southeast Asia causing the region's worst air pollution in history.
Indonesian President Suharto ordered a full mobilisation of government officials to fight the fires, as Malaysian fire-fighters, sirens wailing, joined Indonesian colleagues on the island of Sumatra, one of the worst affected regions.
``It's an international catastrophe, the magnitude is so big,'' the president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Pakistan's Syed Babar Ali, told reporters at a media lunch in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.
The WWF country representative in Indonesia, Agus Purnomo, said satellite imagery indicated the areas burned or on fire totalled between 500,000 and 600,000 hectares (1.2 million and 1.5 million acres).
Forestry experts said they feared a major ecological disaster if peat and lignite coal beneath the rain forests of Kalimantan on Borneo island and in Sumatra caught fire.
Many of the fires have been blamed on forestry and plantation companies and small farmers using slash-and-burn methods to clear the land ahead of the monsoon rains _ which are delayed this year by the El Nino weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.
The smog, a thick blanket of smoke trapping industrial and car pollution, has been directly linked to two deaths in Indonesia. More than 32,000 people on Sumatra and Borneo islands have suffered respiratory problems. The haze has covered neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, as far north as Thailand's Phuket tourist resort and north-east into the Philippines.
Australia said on Thursday it would assess the damage and offer assistance and Japan has offered equipment and expertise to fight the fires. Forestry experts from Canada are due in the country at the weekend, diplomats said.
Indonesia's State Secretary Murdiono told reporters in Jakarta that President Suharto ``has instructed officials in the central government and the regions to mobilise to overcome the disaster''.
The government gave no details of what the mobilisation would involve. The co-ordinating minister for welfare, Azwar Anas, told reporters after meeting the president that Suharto had called the situation a national disaster, but he stopped short of declaring a state of emergency.
More than 1,000 Malaysian fire-fighters on Thursday swung into action to help some 8,500 Indonesians battle the blazes. The Malaysians landed at the Sumatran port of Dumai on Wednesday with their equipment.
Local newspapers quoted Forestry Minister Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo as expressing optimism that the fire-fighters would soon have the upper hand.
In the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur long-suffering residents watched 50 fire-fighters spray water from cranes and the tops of buildings as a substitute for smog-clearing rain.
The United States, Britain and Australia warned travellers of health risks, while the World Bank offered emergency aid.
Pollution in affected parts of Indonesia _ southern Sumatra, Kalimantan, southern Irian Jaya and Sulawesi _ was classified as ``very unhealthy'' to ``dangerous,'' the US State Department said in a statement.
But it noted that the capital Jakarta and other popular tourist attractions like Bali were not affected.
The British Foreign Office warned travellers with respiratory or heart problems to seek medical advice. ``All visitors should limit outdoor and physical activity,'' a spokesman said.
Leading British-based travel agent Thomas Cook said it was refusing to take new bookings for holidays in affected areas.
``Business is very, very bad at the moment,'' said Emong Pinsang, operation manager at the 10-year-old tour agency in Kuching, capital city of Malaysia's Sarawak state which is in its seventh day of an emergency declaration.
Within the region, flights have been curtailed, delayed or cancelled due to the poor visibility caused by the smog. Malaysia Airlines, the national carrier, on Thursday announced the closure of the airport in the northern state of Penang, a key industrial and tourism hub.
The Philippine health department told people to stay indoors and expect increased cases of respiratory disease.
Singapore, which has been positioning itself as a shoppers' paradise, said it was monitoring the situation.
``There is not much we can do but hope the wind changes the direction,'' said a spokesman for the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.
World Bank chief James Wolfensohn on Thursday made a broad offer of emergency funding if needed. ``We are prepared to come in any way we can on an emergency basis if funding is needed,'' he told a news conference at the end of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings in Hong Kong.
Mr Wolfensohn described the smog as ``a terrible situation''. _ Reuter
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