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    By Uli Schmetzer, Tribune Staff Writer. Tribune news services contributed to this report
    Web-posted Saturday, September 27, 1997; 6:04 a.m. CDT

    Dateline: MANILA

    The thick, toxic haze endangering millions of lives as it creeps across Southeast Asia was cited as the possible cause of the crash Friday of an Indonesian jetliner carrying 234 people.

    All aboard were feared dead.

    The plane was attempting to land at recently reopened Medan airport, on the tip of Sumatra, in visibility dramatically reduced by the haze. Dozens of airports in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Thailand have been closed because of poor visibility as the haze spreads.

    The plane, a Garuda Airlines A-300 Airbus, reportedly exploded and came to rest in pieces in a ravine.

    Two Americans and six Japanese were aboard, the official Antara news agency reported, saying the others were Indonesians. At least one infant was among the passengers.

    An airline official said the plane had taken off from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, about an hour earlier with 222 passengers and 12 crew, en route to Medan.

    Search and rescue teams were rushed to the scene, a mountainous area about 870 miles northwest of Jakarta. There were no reports of survivors, according to Indonesia's Anteve television.

    Meanwhile, the cloud of toxic yellow haze from forest fires in Indonesia crept further across Southeast Asia, and millions of people were ordered by health authorities to stay indoors, keep windows closed and venture outside only wearing white masks or wet cloth over their mouths.

    Smoke, known as the haze, has mixed with dioxin from traffic jams in urban areas to create what scientists here named "smaze"--a mixture of smog and haze. The smaze has made skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore disappear from sight and has stopped Philippine fishermen in southern Palawan from going out to sea because they could not find their way home.

    Experts have said the effects of the haze in Southeast Asian capitals is equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. They warned that if the smog continues it could be fatal for those suffering heart and respiratory ailments.

    Nearly 60,000 people in the worst affected areas in Malaysia and Indonesia already have been taken to hospitals with serious breathing problems.

    In the Indonesian city of Jambi, 370 miles northeast of Jakarta, two floors at a hotel were set aside for seriously ill patients affected by a blanket of smog that burns eyes and throats. Smoke detectors in the city were turned off to stop them from ringing.

    In Manila, health authorities Friday admitted they had no instruments to measure the haze pollution but advised the public to "trust their eyes" and place wet handkerchiefs or masks over their mouths "once your eyes begin to run."

    In a race against time to ward off what environmentalists are calling "a catastrophe," governments worldwide have offered their help to extinguish fires burning uncontrollably on Sumatra and Borneo. The fires were deliberately set to clear land.

    Last-minute projects to seed clouds and mobilize water-bombing aircraft have been foiled by layers of dense smoke, which keep the fires hidden from pilots.

    The latest victims of the haze are in 14 provinces in southern Thailand, including the tourist island of Phuket.

    Reports from Irian Jaya, the Indonesian part of New Guinea, said 271 people have died of starvation after drought ruined their crops and emergency air relief could not deliver supplies because of the haze.

    The British tourist agency Thomas Cook has canceled all bookings to the affected areas in Southeast Asia. The U.S., Australia and Canada have warned citizens about the danger, and Malaysia reported an exodus of foreigners fleeing the phenomenon.

    The State Department said pollution in the worst affected areas of southern Sumatra, the Kalimantan area of Borneo, southern Irian Jaya and Sulawesi ranged from "very unhealthy" to "dangerous."

    On Friday, the U.S. promised to send experts to Indonesia. A three-member Canadian team arrived in Jakarta Thursday to teach Indonesians how to extinguish the peat and coal fires that have begun to burn below the forest and are far more difficult to put out than normal fires.

    Australia has said its firefighters are standing by. Japan has sent firefighters and equipment. France is sending doctors, meteorologists and firefighting crews. Thailand has offered to water bomb the fires from planes, Malaysia has sent its air force to seed clouds with salt to make rain, and the Philippines on Friday called on all Asian nations to form a coordinating committee to fight the inferno and save the region from even greater damage.

    Two months after the fires started, and weeks after they began spreading the haze across Southeast Asia, Indonesian President Suharto finally mobilized his government Thursday. The fires in Indonesia are believed to cover between 1.2 million and 1.4 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut.

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