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Forest fires cast pall over southeast Asia

Petronas Twin Towers
Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers were shrouded in smog in the capital, Kualar Lumpur  

SINGAPORE -- Four southeast Asian nations are to meet in an attempt to combat a haze that has descended over the region from forest fires raging across Sumatra and Borneo.

Pollution levels in the region have been driven to dangerously high levels by the fires that stem from slash-and-burn farming tactics that ruin the local environment and impact upon tourism, health and economies throughout the region.

Environment officials from Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore will be keen to see how promised measures translate into concrete action and how Indonesia's neighbors may be called upon to help at the July 19 meeting in Jakarta.

"We'll find out more when we meet them on 19th July. So far it's contact through letters," Loh Ah Tuan, a director at Singapore's Ministry of the Environment, told a news conference on Friday.

"Our sense is that there is a commitment on their part to actually deal with the fires."

Indonesia drew harsh criticism from its neighbors in 1997 when smoke from fires lit by slash-and-burn farmers blanketed large parts of southeast Asia, hurting tourism and prompting health concerns across the region.

Indonesian authorities have asked Australian firefighters to help them put out fires now hitting parts of Sumatra and Borneo.

The sky over Kuala Lumpur changed little on Friday, with sunshine burning weakly through the smoke and the landmark Petronas Twin Towers appearing as a silhouette from outside the center of the Malaysian capital.

Stay indoors

Indonesian officials reported some improvement on Borneo, while a light haze veiled sunny skies over Singapore.

Despite the city state's proximity to the blazes on Sumatra, favorable winds had helped to keep pollution readings in the "good" range until late on Thursday.

Singapore has seen none of the smoke that blackened skies over parts of Thailand and Malaysia this week but readings taken by the Ministry of the Environment on Friday showed counts had edged into the "moderate" category.

"The situation will not change very much in what we're experiencing in Singapore -- a slight to moderate haze -- and I don't think it will deteriorate," Wong Teo Suan, deputy director of the Meteorological Service of Singapore, told Reuters news agency.

Pollution levels were unlikely to hit those seen four years ago during fires in Indonesia exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

A change in wind direction and some rain have helped to improve the situation in Thailand and Malaysia.

Malaysia's New Straits Times newspaper said the smoke was a regional problem but urged Indonesia to confront the issue.

"We are confident that it is not beyond the capacity of the Indonesian authorities to exercise greater vigilance and impose strict punishment on the culprits," the newspaper said in an editorial on Friday.

On Thursday, the Malaysian Medical Association advised the sick and elderly to avoid outdoor activities. Earlier this week, Selangor state told schools to stop all outdoor activities.

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