IMAGE: HAZE OVER MALAYSIAN CITY
Roslan Rahman  /  AFP - Getty Images
Haze envelops Johor Bahru, Malaysia, on Wednesday.
updated 10/18/2006 1:24:14 PM ET 2006-10-18T17:24:14

Authorities on Wednesday closed several Indonesian airports shrouded in smoke from land-clearing fires, threatening chaos for millions of travelers preparing to return home to celebrate the end of the Muslim holy month Ramadan.

The fires are triggering fears of a repeat of the environmental disaster in 1997-98 when dry conditions linked to the El Nino weather pattern caused a choking haze that cost the region billions of dollars in economic losses.

About 14.5 million people are expected to travel by road, air and sea during an annual exodus from major cities to rural villages to mark the end of the fasting month, expected within days.

Authorities closed three regional airports where visibility was only about 100 yards due to fires used to clear land in the archipelago nation, said Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa.

Flight cancellations and delays also were reported at airports on Borneo and Sumatra islands, officials said.

The help of the army, firefighting airplanes and cloud-seeding have so far failed to extinguish fires that have raged for more than two months, shrouding much of western Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia and Singapore with smoke.

In Malaysia, air quality in the capital of Kuala Lumpur plunged to unhealthy levels. The government advised citizens to refrain from outdoor activities.

A meeting of leaders from five Southeast Asian countries last week urged Jakarta to ratify a regional treaty on cross-border haze, and said financial assistance would be withheld until it did.

The smog, which triggered health warnings in Singapore and Malaysia this year, has plagued Southeast Asia since the 1990s.

Indonesia says it is cracking down on those responsible for the fires, having arrested 300 people and filed lawsuits against six companies this year.

The haze is even disturbing orangutans living in a natural reserve on Borneo island.

Saut Manalu, a senior official at the Tanjung Puting national park where 6,000 orangutans live, said animals are even more affected by the smoke than humans.

“We can hear them scream late at night,” he said, adding fires had been found inside the reserve that occupies a large swathe of land in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia’s side of Borneo island.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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