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Firefighters battling a forest fire in Kampar, Riau on Monday. AFP PIC

JAKARTA: Thousands of Indonesians prayed for rain in haze-hit towns in Sumatra and Borneo yesterday, as forest fires raged at the height of the dry season, the state Antara news agency reported.

Fires have burnt through parts of the islands for more than a month and the government has deployed 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to fight the flames.

Indonesia’s neighbours regularly complain about smog caused by its forest blazes, which are often started to clear land for oil palm and pulp plantations.

But Indonesia said this week it was not to blame and fires had been spotted by satellites in neighbouring countries.

Several parts of Southeast Asia have seen unusually dry conditions in recent months including Indonesia, which has seen little rain because of an El Nino weather pattern, its meteorological department has said.

Some communities have taken to prayer in the hope of ending the dry weather and the haze it brings.

Thousands of people in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau in Sumatra, held prayers for rain outside the governor’s office.

Many of those taking part wore face masks to protect themselves from the haze, Antara reported.

“We’re doing everything we can. Now we pray to Allah for the rain,” deputy provincial governor Edy Nasution told the news agency.

Similar prayers were held in towns in Kalimantan, where air quality has been at unhealthy levels and schools have been forced to close, the news agency said.

Mosques in Malaysia have also been encouraged to hold prayers for rain, said Islamic Development Department head Mohamad Nordin, according to Bernama.

Indonesian authorities are using 37 helicopters and 239 million litres of water bombs to douse the fires, the disaster agency said on its Twitter account, while aircraft were seeding clouds in the hope of generating rain.

The agency said 5,062 hotspots had been detected in six Indonesian provinces as of yesterday morning.

Endro Wibowo, deputy police chief of the town of Sampit in Central Kalimantan, said his team was working around the clock to put out the fires.

Police were also taking legal action to deter farmers from illegally using fire to clear land, Antara reported.

Criminal cases have been initiated against 175 people in different places on suspicion of starting fires while four oil palm companies were facing charges of negligence, police told media.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment said small-scale farmers were being blamed for fires started by oil palm plantation companies.

“Actions by the central and local governments have not been stringent enough against companies in industrial forests or oil palm plantations on peat lands.

“They always blame the community,” said Muhammad Ferdhiyadi of the group’s South Sumatra branch. -- Reuters

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