Ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei are due to hold talks in Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia's Riau province. The province itself is badly affected by the raging fires.

Indonesia's neighbours are frustrated over Jakarta's inability to deal with the annual dry season blazes. In past weeks they have caused serious air pollution across the region, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore.

 

"We are asking for assistance in terms of equipment or expertise. We will see what they can offer to us," Malam Sambat Kaban, Indonesia's forestry minister, said on Friday.

 

The fires, often started deliberately by farmers or big plantation businesses, have been burning for weeks in parts of Indonesia.

 

Choking haze

 

The fires create a choking haze that has made many ill, threatened wildlife in protected forests and forced the closure of airports.

 

Kaban said Indonesia expected its neighbours to recognise that the problem was not a simple one to fix.

 

Neighbour Malaysia has been
badly affected by the smoke

"That's why we will take them for a field trip on Saturday so that they can see for themselves the situation," he said.

 

Kaban said more than 75 per cent of the fires were not in government-controlled forests but in plantations and farms belonging to private companies and local people.

 

He said that Central Kalimantan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island was the worst hit, with around one million hectares of peat land in one area affected.

 

Peat fires are particularly hard to put out and can burn for months.

 

Solution through talks

 

Ong Keng Yong, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) secretary-general, speaking on Friday in Singapore, urged the region to tackle the haze problem through talks.

 

"Of course, we hope that there will be an unequivocal statement ... but a strong statement by itself is not enough. A strong statement must be followed by assertive, definite, practical action," he said.

 

"This environmental disaster is an embarrassment for Indonesia"

Joni Setiawan Mundung,
head of Friends of the Earth Indonesia

Outside a hotel where senior officials were meeting to flesh out details for the ministerial meeting, about 20 environmental activists in face masks held a protest over the fires.

 

"Business people are receiving special treatment from the government while the people here and in neighbouring countries are suffering from the haze. This environmental disaster is an embarrassment for Indonesia," Joni Setiawan Mundung, head of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI), said.

 

"What is needed is for the government to arrest plantation barons because they are the ones responsible for the haze by paying poor civilians to set fires on the ground."

 

Agreement

 

Kaban said efforts to induce rain by cloud seeding to contain the fires had been hampered by a lack of clouds.

 

Under pressure from its neighbours, Indonesia said on Thursday it would ratify a Southeast Asian agreement that calls for regional cooperation to deal with the forest fires.

 

The Association of South East Asian Nations approved the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002, and Indonesia's failure to ratify it had angered countries affected by the haze.

 

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pledged to use all resources available to put out the fires, including enlisting soldiers and police and leasing two Russian cargo aircraft that could each carry 40 tonnes of water to douse the flames.

 

The haze hit its worst level in 1997-98 and cost the Southeast Asian region an estimated $9bn by disrupting air travel and other business activities.