Environment: After the smog, earthquake wreaks havoc in Indonesia

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The Independent Online
A deadly earthquake is the latest catastrophe to shake South-east Asia, after a plane crash, three ship collisions, and weeks of choking smog. Richard Lloyd Parry reports on the ongoing crisis in the region.

The latest in a series of disasters struck South-East Asia yesterday when a powerful earthquake destroyed houses and crushed their inhabitants on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

By yesterday evening, 14 bodies were reported to have been recovered from hundreds of collapsed buildings in and around the town of Pare Pare after a tremor measuring six on the Richter scale struck just after 9.30 in the morning. At least 30 people were admitted to hospitals in Sulawesi, which straddles the equator south of the Philippines.

The earthquake comes at a time of national crisis for Indonesia, where immense forest fires are burning out of control, causing a choking smog which is blocking out the sun in six countries and making tens of thousands of people ill.

Rescue workers on the island of Sumatra continued their search yesterday for the black box flight recorder of the Garuda airlines passenger jet which crashed into a jungle plantation on Friday, apparently as a consequence of the enveloping smog. Minutes before the accident, in which all 234 passengers and crew died, the pilot had complained of poor visibility caused by the smoke. Both Jakarta airport, from where the plane took off, and Medan, its destination, were open yesterday, but nine of the 10 other airports in Sumatra were closed with visibility on the ground down to 50 feet.

There were wretched scenes at Medan airport yesterday, where 300 bereaved relatives arrived from Jakarta, after the smog lifted sufficiently to allow their flight through. Although hundreds of bodies have been recovered, their mutilated condition has prevented identification of all but about 60 of them. Families picked through coffins of crushed, burned and severed body parts, attempting to identify familiar pieces of clothing or distinctive dental fillings. Airline officials unsuccessfully attempted to mask the smell of decay by scattering ground coffee and mothballs on the ground.

The British Embassy in Jakarta said that two British citizens were among the dead; the 20 or so foreign victims also came from the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Japan and Taiwan. The Indonesian president, Suharto, was said by his state secretary to have ordered that the unidentified bodies be buried today in a mass grave close to the burial site of the victims of another Garuda crash in 1979.

On the largest Indonesian island of Java, the forest fires have forced rare tigers to abandon their mountain habitat. Four Javanese tigers, as well as mountain monkeys, have been reported by forestry patrols near the town of Selo, beneath the extinct volcano Mt Merbabu. In Malaysia meanwhile, the clouds of pollution were delaying the search for the bodies of 29 Indian sailors whose cargo vessel sank after being sliced in two by a Caribbean supertanker on Friday night.

Maritime investigators were trying to determine if haze caused the accident in the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest waterways in the world through which 36,000 vessels pass every year. "In view of the haze situation, all vessels plying the Strait of Malacca should be more cautious," said Malaysia's deputy transport minister, Ali Rustam.

On 19 September the MV Sun Win and MV Kamogawa collided off Port Klang, 24 miles west of Kuala Lumpur, also in thick haze. Neither was badly damaged and no one was injured. In a third incident that occurred on Saturday morning, an empty Malasian oil tanker sailing from Penang in the northern part of the Straits of Malacca to Port Dickson reported that it was hit by something when visibility was only about 500 yards.

Rain and wind reduced the pollution levels across Malaysia yesterday. In Kuching, on the island of Borneo, officials lifted a state of emergency declared last week where record concentrations of pollution were recorded. But in Kuala Lumpur, the leader of the opposition, Lim Kit Siang, demanded a parliamentary debate on the "national haze disaster".

He submitted a parliamentary motion expressing "concern at the failure and inability of the Indonesian government to bring the raging thousands of forest and plantation fires under control, posing grave threats to the environment, health and well-being of tens of millions of people in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines as well as Indonesia". He called on Indonesia to admit it cannot fight the forest fires alone and to ask the United Nations to organise an international haze-fighting team.