Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologises for haze

A resident tries to extinguish a fire burning on peatland in Pekanbaru of Riau province, 24 June 2013 Forest fires have spread through large parts of Riau province in Indonesia

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Indonesia's president has apologised to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore for the thick haze caused by fires in Sumatra.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said firefighters were working hard to extinguish the blazes.

The smog caused record levels of air pollution in Singapore and forced hundreds of Malaysian schools to close.

The haze is being blamed on illegal slash-and-burn fires used to clear land for palm oil production.

"As president of Indonesia, I apologise for what has happened and ask for the understanding of the people of Malaysia and Singapore," Mr Yudhoyono said late on Monday.

"We accept it is our responsibility to tackle the problem," he said, adding that there should be "a thorough investigation" into the fires.

The blaze strained diplomatic relations between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore last week, as governments argued over who was to blame for the smog, and an Indonesian official suggested that Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Sumatra also bore some responsibility.

Two arrested

Indonesia is conducting water-bombing and cloud seeding operations in a bid to combat the fires, which are primarily in Sumatra's Riau province.

Slash-and-burn clearances

Fire in Riau province, Indonesia, 22 June
  • Vegetation is cut down and burned to clear land for cultivation
  • Cheaper than using excavators and bulldozers
  • Illegal burning of forests to clear land for palm oil plantations is common in Indonesia - particularly in dry season
  • Indonesia says it is investigating several palm oil companies

Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency said that at least 69 of the 265 fires in Riau were put out on Monday, AP news agency reported.

Meanwhile, police in Indonesia said two people had been arrested for starting fires.

"We arrested two farmers in Riau who were clearing their land by burning. They were not working for anyone but just clearing their own land," Agus Rianto, a police spokesman, said.

Malaysia declared a state of emergency in two southern districts on Sunday as air pollution levels reached a 16-year high, leaving two towns in virtual shutdown.

In Singapore, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit a record high of 401 on Friday - a level where prolonged exposure is considered potentially "life-threatening" for old and vulnerable people.

Air pollution levels dropped over the weekend as prevailing wind directions changed, the National Environment Agency said. On Tuesday morning, the PSI reading was 47, which is within the "good" range for air quality.

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