JAKARTA Indonesia is preparing warships as a last resort to evacuate children and others suffering from smoke inhalation from slash-and-burn fires, a minister said on Friday, as the country struggles to contain fires expected to continue for weeks. Southeast Asia has suffered for years from annual "haze" caused by forest and peat clearing across Indonesia, which has come under increasing political pressure to stop the problem, but so far to no avail. Fires this year have been helped by drier weather brought by the El Nino weather phenomenon and have pushed air pollution to hazardous levels across Southeast Asia, forcing schools to close and disrupting flights. "We are looking for a place for babies to be evacuated to if necessary," coordinating security minister Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters referring to plans to prepare six warships and two state-owned ferries. The ships, however, will only be used as a last resort if other efforts, including moving residents to government offices with air purifiers, prove unsuccessful, Pandjaitan said.
The former general, who has been tasked by President Joko Widodo to oversee the response to the haze, said the country was treating the issue as a national disaster but stopped short of declaring a state of national emergency.
Indonesia earlier this month asked several countries, including neighboring Singapore and Malaysia and far-flung Russia, for aid, equipment and personnel to help combat the fires.
Noting the success of Russia's Be200 water bomber, Panjaitan said he had requested similar aircraft assistance from Canada, the United States and France.
The fires are spreading to new areas like Papua and are unlikely to be put out till next year, experts say. Widodo said no new permits would be given to plantation companies to develop peatland, and that the government would work to restore and re-irrigate drained peatland areas that are often hit by fires. "This situation is having a major impact and has reached very unhealthy levels," he said, referring to thousands of fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Garuda said the haze had cost the state airline about $8 million in lost sales and other expenses, with 120,000 passengers cancelling flights last month alone.
(Reporting by Jakarta bureau; Writing by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Nick Macfie)