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Indonesia Starts Legal Action Against Companies Linked to SE Asia Haze

An officer points to fires or hot spots in Kalimantan, Indonesian part of Borneo, on a screen at the Fire Command Post at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Jakarta, Sept. 22, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

Indonesia has ordered four companies to suspend operations for allegedly causing forest fires that have sent thick smoke across a swathe of Southeast Asia, an environment ministry official said on Tuesday.

Indonesia has launched investigations against more than 200 companies as it scrambles to bring the fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan islands under control by the end of November, amid complaints from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Previous government efforts to halt the seasonal slash-and-burn practices have failed to tackle the problem due to a lack of policy coordination and legal wrangling that can take years to resolve.

"These suspensions will be in effect until the criminal proceedings undertaken by the police are finished," environment ministry secretary general Bambang Hendroyono said.

Three palm oil plantation companies have had their permits frozen and one forestry company has had its licence revoked, he added. All the companies were Indonesian-owned.

Plantation company PT Langgam Inti Hibrindo (LIH), which is owned by small listed firm PT Provident Agro, was among the companies to have its permit frozen, Bambang Hendroyono said.

Provident Agro said in an email to Reuters that LIH had not received any notice of its operational license being suspended or revoked.

Director of criminal law at the environment ministry, Muhammad Yunus, said a Singapore-owned company was also under investigation, but declined to elaborate.

President Joko Widodo has ordered thousands of security personnel backed by helicopters to help fight the fires, and has threatened to revoke land permits from companies found responsible.

Haze has blanketed the region in recent weeks, pushing pollution levels to record highs in Singapore, Malaysia and northern Indonesia.

An air pollution index in Singapore rose into "unhealthy" territory on Tuesday, according to a government website.

Underscoring the difficulties for the Indonesian government, the Supreme Court this month upheld for the first time a 366 billion rupiah ($25.26 million) fine against PT Kallista Alam for illegally burning peatland, a case that took three years to be resolved.

Green groups say that the Indonesian government needs to put in place a longer-term plan to tackle the annual burning, and that a greater proportion of budgeted funds should be spent on prevention.