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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Illegal forest clearing fires in Indonesia's Sumatra Island are sending haze across the Malacca Strait to neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, causing the worst air pollution since 2006, officials said on Thursday.
Despite pledge among governments to deter fires, the haze prompted Malaysia to alert vessels in the Malacca Strait of poor visibility as short as 2 nautical miles and shut many schools.
Singapore, covered in thick smoke this week, saw its air pollution index hit the highest level since 2006 on Wednesday. The port and international airport are still functioning as normal.
"The suspicion is that this is coming from forests that have been opened up for plantations. We think it may be for palm oil," Purwasto Saroprayogi, head of the land and forest fires department at Indonesia's Environment Ministry, told Reuters.
Saroprayogi said the haze was caused by fires lit to clear land illegally in Dumai and Bengkalis districts in Riau province, in the north of Sumatra island.
Indonesia has a long history of weak forestry law enforcement and illegal land clearing by palm oil developers is not uncommon.
Fires clear land quickly and reduce the acidity of peatland soil, but release vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.
The haze returned to the region less than a week after environment ministers in Southeast Asia met in Brunei to address land and forest fires, which drew immediate flak from neighbors.
"This is not the first time that we have informed the Indonesians that they should pay attention to hotspots in Sumatra and Borneo," Singapore's Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told reporters on Wednesday.
Yaacob said if the haze worsened, "we will register our concerns again, perhaps on even stronger terms, to our Indonesian colleagues," adding Singapore may seek to reconvene another meeting to find "additional measures" to mitigate the problem.
Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Kuala Lumpur was seeking "more cooperation" from Jakarta in tackling the haze problem, state news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.
"According to the reports we've received, the haze originates from there (Indonesia). We are not simply making accusation but we want action before the haze spreads and becomes more detrimental to Malaysia," he said.
Muhyiddin, also education minister, said schools in Muar town in southern Johor state had been closed and about 5,000 masks were distributed after air quality hit hazardous levels, the Star newspaper reported on Thursday.
The worst haze hit the region in 1997-98, when drought caused by El Nino led to major Indonesian fires. The smoke spread to Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and cost more than $9 billion in damage to tourism, transport and farming.
Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh in Jakarta and Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Miral Fahmy