Indonesia hits back at Malaysia over forest fires

A tourist takes a picture from Kuala Lumpur Tower as the city stands shrouded with haze on Friday, September 13, 2019. (AP)
Updated 13 September 2019

Indonesia hits back at Malaysia over forest fires

  • Malaysia closed hundreds of schools and sent half a million face masks to Sarawak this week, after the smoke built up to unhealthy levels
  • Air quality in Indonesian towns closest to the fires have risen to hazardous levels

JAKARTA: Indonesia on Friday rejected Malaysian complaints about hazardous smoke drifting from its forest fires across the border, saying blazes were also raging in parts of Malaysia and on Malaysian-owned plantations in Indonesia.
In an escalating row over the smoke haze, a Malaysian minister said on Thursday that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would write to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to raise concerns about cross-border haze.
Malaysia closed hundreds of schools and sent half a million face masks to Sarawak this week, after the smoke built up to unhealthy levels.
Air quality in Indonesian towns closest to the fires have risen to hazardous levels and on Wednesday thousands held mass Islamic prayer for rain.
Forest fires have become an almost annual occurrence in Indonesia, especially in dry years, and Indonesia’s neighbors have complained of the thick, choking haze wafting in, raising concern about health and the impact on tourism.
Indonesia’s Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Friday said she felt Malaysia had not painted an objective picture of the flames, which have ripped through parts of Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo islands for more than a month.
Bakar said while smog from fires in Indonesia may have crossed over to Malaysia, fires detected last week in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo and peninsular Malaysia also contributed to worsening air quality there.
“I only asked that they (Malaysians) be objective and sequential in their data analysis,” she told Reuters on Friday, responding to Kuala Lumpur’s remarks that it was using recent data from ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center.
Malaysia’s Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin in a post on her Facebook page on Thursday evening said Indonesia “should not be in denial” and data should speak for itself.
Yeo said the ASEAN data put the number of hotspots in the Indonesian provinces on Borneo and on Sumatra island at 474 and 387, respectively, versus 7 in Malaysia. She also claimed that wind direction meant the haze could not be from Sarawak.
Bakar said she was not seeking to look for excuses but did not “have time for polemics” and would rather work on putting out fires that she said covered a “huge” area.
Jakarta had deployed 46 helicopters for water bombing and cloud seeding, Bakar said.
Indonesia has sent thousands of security personnel to try to douse the flames. The government has also sealed off plantations operated by at least 30 companies, where fires had been spotted, and brought criminal charges against four.
At least four palm oil companies whose land had been sealed off were subsidiaries of Malaysian groups, Bakar said.
She named them as West Kalimantan-based Sime Indo Agro — a unit of Sime Darby Plantation, Sukses Karya Sawit — a unit of IOI Corporation, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi — a unit of TDM Berhad and Riau-based Adei Plantation and Industry — a unit of Kuala Lumpur Kepong Group.
A spokeswoman for Sime Darby’s Indonesian operation Minamas Plantation said the company was not aware its plantation had been sealed off and was monitoring for hotspots. Sime Darby and IOI both said they were checking their Indonesian operations.
Sukses Karya Sawit, Rafi Kamajaya Abadi and Adei Plantation and Industry could not immediately be contacted. The parent companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over 70 Afghan government troops killed in Taliban attacks

Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Over 70 Afghan government troops killed in Taliban attacks

  • Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman: The Taliban have increased their raids since the start of the talks, the reason for it is to seek concessions at the negotiation table
  • Fawad Aman: Government troops, who were on active defense status because of the talks in Qatar, were forced to respond and managed to foil Taliban attacks and inflict heavy losses

KABUL: More than 70 government security forces have been killed across Afghanistan in Taliban attacks during the past two days alone, officials said Tuesday, even as negotiators from both sides engage in direct peace talks to end decades of war.

“The Taliban have increased their raids since the start of the talks and, as the defense minister said recently, the reason for it is to seek concessions at the negotiation table which is impossible to gain through violence and killing,” Fawad Aman, Defense Ministry spokesman, told Arab News.

He said that government troops, who were on “active defense status” because of the ongoing talks in Qatar, were forced to respond and managed to foil Taliban attacks and inflict heavy losses.

The Taliban had the intention of capturing towns and districts from the government, like it had done in the past, while the talks were going on in Qatar, but they had not succeeded and faced a tough response from security forces, Aman added.

Tariq Aryan, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that while the Taliban had carried out attacks in 24 out of 34 provinces since the start of the talks last week, seven provinces had come under renewed assault in the past 48 hours.

Southern Uruzgan has been the site of the worst strikes, which began on Sunday night and continued until early Tuesday morning, he said.

“At least 24 government forces were killed after the Taliban stormed their posts on Sunday night,” Uruzgan’s deputy governor, Sayed Mohammad Sadat, was reported as saying by local media. 

Overnight, at least 14 more government troops were killed in a separate Taliban attack in Gizab district, the governor’s spokesman Zergai Ebadi said on Tuesday.

In Kandahar which, like Uruzgan serves as the Taliban’s birthplace, 11 soldiers lost their lives in two separate attacks on Sunday night, while 20 troops were killed in two different raids in Maidan Wardak province, which lies on a strategic highway to the west of Kabul.

Several dozen soldiers were killed in other parts of the country, such as Takhar and Baghlan in the north and Tagab in Kabul’s northeast, but officials at the defense and interior ministries did not provide an exact figure when contacted by Arab News.

The Taliban blamed the government for the escalation of attacks, accusing it of building new posts in regions close to Taliban-controlled areas, and dispatching additional troops in nine provinces.

“We have been on defense mode, and the reason why they have suffered is because they were trying to establish new positions in ours, making them vulnerable to our attacks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman told Arab News by phone, adding that the government was carrying out air raids “in retaliation” for its casualties that “only killed civilians.”

“Talks are going on in Qatar but, in the battlefield, we are not allowing them to make any progress,” he said.

The significance of the timing is not lost on officials. 

Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted on Monday: “Over the last few days, there has been a clear rise in violence in Afghanistan. This escalation is regrettable as Afghans, including many civilians, are losing their lives.” He called on all sides to reduce violence.

Sediq Seddiqi, President Ashraf Ghani’s chief spokesman, said that while talks were underway in Qatar the “continuation of violence will further disappoint the people.”

“We have lost a large number of our troops (in recent days), and people ask why there is violence when we talk about peace,” he told Arab News. “Both people and the government believe that the Taliban do not have any justification for the continuation of violence.”

Seddiqi said that the continuation of Taliban attacks may damage the consensus created at home and in the region on the peace process, with the US eyeing a complete withdrawal of its troops from the country by next spring.

One presidential palace source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if the Taliban insisted on the continuation of violence then there was a probability that “the peace process will collapse.”

Experts, however, viewed the recent attacks as part of “political pressure tactics.”

“The warring sides in Afghanistan, like in other past peace processes in other parts of the world, want to build pressure on each other on the battlefield to have the upper hand in the political bargaining,” Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired general, told Arab News.

But he said that, in Afghanistan’s case, the government suffered the most.

“It’s because it deals with maximum pressure and faces rising public anger because of the casualties and from other sides, there are people in government who want to prolong the war because it is through that they have thrived, earned wealth and power.”

Amarkhail, without naming any leader, said that some in top government positions were also “fanning ethnic and sectarian tension” while the serious process of talks in Qatar had yet to begin, fearing it could “lead to mistrust and possibly derail the peace process.”

Amanullah Hotaki, a former provincial council member in Uruzgan, said: “If the talks fail, then they (the Taliban) have to be in the upper position for implementing their Plan B which is to get power by force.”