Indonesian Haze Closes Airports

October 22, 2006

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Poor visibility due to thick smoke from Indonesian forest fires shut an airport in the central part of Indonesia's Sumatra island on Sunday, compounding transport misery over the main Muslim holiday period.

At Sultan Thaha airport in Sumatra's Jambi province, flights have been canceled since last week.

"(The condition is) still the same. We haven't been able to open the airport," airport head Basuki Mardiyanto said.

He said travelers trying to get back to their home towns and villages this week for Eid al-Fitr festivities to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan had to be diverted to an airport in Palembang in South Sumatra.

The visibility in Jambi was as low as 150 metres, the official said.

The fires have been raging for weeks, spreading smoke across much of Southeast Asia and triggering fears of a repeat of the environmental disaster in 1997-98 when dry conditions linked to the El Nino weather pattern caused a choking haze that cost the region billions of dollars in economic losses.

Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin airport in Palembang was packed with people trying to get in and out of the area, airport official Lukman Apriono said by phone.

Flights resumed after being canceled for several hours when visibility improved to 7,000 metres, the official said.

"The minimum is 800 metres. If it is lower then we close".

The travel chaos also extended to the roads in other parts of the vast country, the world's fourth most populous nation, with 220 million people, 85 percent of whom follow Islam.

There was better news in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on Borneo island, which has also been hit hard by the haze in recent weeks.

After being shut for two days, the airport in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, reopened after heavy rain dampened forest fires, Citra Duani, a local government spokesman said. He said river transport in the vast province was also normal.

The airport in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, was also open.

(Reuters)