Saturday, September 27, 1997 Internet Edition

Plane crash over smog site kills 221

JAKARTA--All 221 passengers and crew were feared killed when a Garuda Indonesia Airbus crashed on Friday in a mountainous region south of the city of Medan on Sumatra island, police and airport officials said.

The cause of the crash was not known but one resident in Medan said the city was shrouded by thick haze from forest fires in the region.

Officials said the plane, on a flight from Jakarta to Medan, lost contact with the control tower about 1.30 p.m. (0530 GMT).

Police said the plane went down near the village of Buah Nabar in the Sibolangit district south of Medan.

"We are afraid there are no survivors," one official said.

Choking haze

Airport sources placed the crash site some 45 km south of Medan, a major commodities and trading center.

District officials said rescue teams were headed for the crash site but had no further details.

The bush fires through the archipelago have sent a choking, health-threatening haze across neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. The smoke has also drifted as far as the southern Philippines and parts of Thailand including the resort area of Phuket.

Indonesia, spread along the equator and comprising about 17,500 islands, relies heavily on air transport although international experts are often critical of the standard of training and maintenance practices in its aviation sector.

In July, a Fokker F-27 operated by Sempati Air crashed soon after take-off from the West Java city of Bandung, killing 30 people.

A Garuda McDonnell Douglas DC-10 caught fire after an aborted take-off at Japan's Fukuoka airport in June 1996, killing at least three people and injuring 99.

Tourists turn away

In Kuala Lumpur, tourists are starting to give some popular sites in Southeast Asia a miss because of choking smog from scores of forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra.

And warnings by the United States and other countries about the health hazards posed by the smog could cut further into business and tourist travel--a major money-spinner for many parts of the region.

The US State Department cautioned US citizens traveling to Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia that air pollution had reached unhealthy levels.

Leading British-based travel agent Thomas Cook said it was refusing to take new bookings for holidays in affected areas.

Australia's Foreign Affairs Department warned Australians traveling to affected areas that the smog could cause health problems, particularly for people who are pregnant and suffer from heart and respiratory illnesses.

Poor visibility

The smog has spread to nine southern Thai provinces and the government on Friday said it was prepared to send two water-carrying aircraft to help fight the blazes.

"The hardest hit is Phuket resort province. So far there's no victim but motorists are requested to avoid driving because visibility in Phuket and some of the affected provinces is still poor," a public health ministry spokeswoman told Reuters.

Singapore, which has been positioning itself as a shoppers' paradise, said it was monitoring the situation.

"There is not much we can do but hope the wind changes the direction," said a spokesman for the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board.

Bad business

Harpers Travel, a Malaysian agency that books trips within the region, said it has seen a decline in business due to the pollution.

"Outbound we are hit by the currency thing (weakness in regional currencies) and inbound by this haze problem," said Cho Loi Hong, general manager of the company.

Outdoor-oriented Malaysian tour group Borneo Adventure says business is very bad.

Borneo island, where the company is based, has been a virtual desert island, cut off from flights and tourists who trek in to see the rainforest paradise.

"Business is very, very bad at the moment," said Emong Pinsang, operation manager at the 10-year-old tour agency in Kuching, capital city of Malaysia's Sarawak state.

"My schedule is basically empty. Within one week alone this month, business is down 80 percent," he said gloomily.


Sarawak is on its seventh day of an emergency declared after very hazardous pollution levels shut down schools, cut government office staff to about 20 percent and reduced working ranks.

Within the region, flights have been curtailed, delayed or cancelled due to the poor visibility caused by the smog. The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, while not a key tourist destination, is also feeling the effects, and on Wednesday cancelled all outdoor and physical activities as the smog thickened.

Even international sporting events are being affected.

The Sarawak Open Squash Championship, being held in Kuching from Thursday to Sunday, had to re-draw some matches after two players from India and two from Pakistan pulled out because of the smog.

"They were stuck in Kuala Lumpur for several days and then decided not to come here," said Ronnie Chong, secretary of the Squash Racket Association of Malaysia.

Expats leaving

Many expatriates have left or are planning to leave Malaysia as dense smog threatens a major health crisis, western diplomats and residents said on Friday.

Indonesia, where two deaths have been directly attributed to the smog, on Thursday declared a national disaster.

Environmentalists believe up to 600,000 hectares of forest are burning or have already been destroyed and some 9,500 fire-fighters, including 1,000 Malaysians, are battling the blazes.

Two Canadians, on their way to a briefing on the smog by the U.S. Embassy, said they were anxious to get more information on the health implications.

"My biggest fear is the lead content," said Debbie Shaver, who has lived in Malaysia's capital for a year. "I can name more than a dozen (Canadians) who've left or are booked to leave."

Diplomats from western missions also said many expatriates had left or were planning to leave the city where desperate firemen have resorted to spraying water from cranes in a bid to clear the air.

Info problem

Foreigners interviewed said they were uneasy about the extent of information being provided by Malaysian authorities.

The US embassy earlier this week said it had authorized diplomats' families and staff to leave Malaysia if they so chose.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, asked on Friday about the departure of foreigners, said: "Well, they have to make a decision. We respect their decision. As far as the government is concerned, it's still safe, there is no evidence to the contrary. What we suggest is don't take risks being outside."

Australia's Foreign Affairs Department warned Australians traveling to affected areas that the smog could cause health problems.

The Canadian High Commission is rotating its staff to Australia for fresh air.--Reuters

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