SEP 25 1997


Indonesia deploys troops to fight fires


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In Singapore

In the region


By Derwin Pereira
in Jakarta

INDONESIA, on the verge of declaring a national emergency, has deployed more than 50,000 military personnel to fight the raging forest and land fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Plantation and forestry firms responsible for the fires have also joined the fire-fighting efforts by loaning heavy equipment to build fire breakers in the affected areas.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 fire-fighters from Malaysia sailed into the port of Dumai in Sumatra on a Royal Malaysian Navy ship yesterday. They will be deployed in various parts of the island to help Indonesia fight the fires on the island.

Indonesian armed forces (Abri) sources told The Straits Times yesterday that the decision to involve the military on a national level was made two days ago after reports that efforts to put out the fires were being hindered by manpower shortage.

Abri personnel at the provincial level had so far been involved in fire-fighting operations in various parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Sources said that President Suharto had ordered Abri chief Feisal Tanjung to send troops to the affected seven provinces if the situation worsened.

"This has become a very serious national and international problem," said Major Djunada, the Abri representative coordinating efforts between the military and Environment Ministry in this matter.

He said the 50,000 troops included territorial unit personnel already engaged in battling the fires and those from the Army Strategic and Reserve Command (Kostrad).

"They will help to contain and put out the fires," he said. He noted that many would be involved in constructing fire-breakers by digging deep trenches around the areas affected by the fire.

His comments come amid widespread speculation here that the government would soon declare a national emergency given the gravity of the situation confronting the affected provinces.

The government has so far declared Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and East, West, South and Central Kalimantan to be on "first alert" or in a "state of danger".

An Environmental Impact Management Agency source said: "A national emergency is a strong possibility now, given that the situation is getting worse in these areas."

Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said that despite all the efforts to put out the fires, the government was being held hostage by severe climatic conditions.

He told The Straits Times that satellite pictures revealed that man-made fires from land clearing was becoming less of a problem now as many firms had "conceded defeat and realised their folly".

The main concern was tackling the country's worst drought in 50 years. He said that even as one "hot spot" was wiped out by fire-fighters, another would emerge elsewhere. Fires were also spreading as a result of strong winds.

"It is really beyond our control. Nature has got the upper hand," he said. He added that the fires were now breaking out even in coastal swamps -- a phenomenon that has never happened before. Natural fires from coal and peat fields were also difficult to extinguish.

He said that he understood the concerns of Singaporeans and Malaysians who felt the brunt of fires in Indonesia with haze enveloping the region but stressed that Jakarta was doing everything possible to solve the problem.

He said: "It is our house that is burning and some 20 million Indonesians are suffering. We are doing our best. But bear in mind that Indonesia is a very big country and a very difficult one to govern."

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