Indonesia police name 19 more suspects in starting forest fires, bringing total to 249

Remote video URL

JAKARTA - The Indonesian police are investigating whether the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which has spread haze to neighbouring countries, were deliberately set alight organised as 19 more suspects were named on Friday (Sept 20).

The police had on Wednesday named 230 suspects of setting fires to forests in Indonesia's two major islands, with the latest suspects bringing the total to 249 suspects.

Among the newly-named suspects were six companies located in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, Central Kalimantan, West Kalimantan and South Sulawesi, said Indonesian national police spokesman Muhammad Iqbal on Friday.

As the police is checking into more areas owned by companies, he predicted the number of suspects will increase.

"This is a strong effort by the Indonesian police to create a deterrent effect to companies so that the intentional land clearance by burning, which is detrimental to the people, will not happen again," Inspector General Iqbal told reporters.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry and Environment has blamed the timber and plantation industries of failing to prevent emergence of wildfires in the ongoing dry season.

The ministry said only about 22 per cent of the forestry business permit holders - or 2,179 firms - submitted mandatory reports on forest fire control, This, it said, suggests a lack of commitment in preventing fires on their land.

Under prevailing Indonesia environment law, the suspects could be prosecuted and punished with a maximum 10-year prison sentence for setting fires to clear land.

Remote video URL

The court could also order convicted companies to pay fines and compensation for the damage as well as impose administrative sanctions, including revoking their operational permits.

Mr Iqbal said that the police is investigating into an allegation that the open burning is organised.

"Law enforcement is one of the key weapons to eliminate these fires. So (we) must be firm and not only reveal the perpetrators of the forest fires, but also uncover the master mind behind the incidents," he said.

Indonesia, home to the world's third-biggest tropical rainforest after the Amazon and Congo Basin, is struggling to curb fires engulfing Sumatra and Kalimantan amid the longer-than-usual dry season this year.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has forecast that the extreme drought will likely to affect a number of regions across the archipelago until November due to prolonged dry season.

From January to August, burnt areas amounted to 328,724ha, of which 27.3 percent were peatlands, according to the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).

As many as 29,039 personnel are being deployed to douse fires now, a surge from 9,072 personnel just a few days ago.

Remote video URL

The number of firefighters rose sharply with the addition of personnel mobilised by the regional administrations, BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo told The Straits Times in a text message.

The emergency response team has used at least 52 helicopters for water bombing every day since the forest fires spread about a month ago. Meanwhile, three aircraft on the standby in Riau and Central Kalimantan for cloud seeding operations in any affected regions.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.