JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s minister of environment and forestry has condemned attempts by a palm oil company to stop an investigation into forest fires by taking ministry investigators hostage.
A team of seven officials investigating wildfires was intercepted Friday and held by a group of captors believed to be mobilized by Andika Permata Sawit Lestari Ltd., a palm oil company operating in Riau province.
Novrizal Tahar, a ministry spokesman, said Monday that the hostages were released early Saturday following negotiations involving police and local officials.
The team initially found that more than 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of forest had been burned by workers of the company, according to a ministry statement Sunday.
Following the negotiations, the team agreed to erase the files from their digital camera, except for pictures taken by a drone, the statement said.
Siti Nurbaya, the minister of environment and forestry, said in the statement that the incident has encouraged her ministry to take stern actions against perpetrators of illegal forest burning and rogue corporations in accordance with the law.
Last week, six provinces on Sumatra and Borneo islands declared emergencies, with forest fires blanketing a swath of Southeast Asia in a smoky haze.
The haze caused by Indonesian wildfires has become an annual problem for Southeast Asia. Last year’s fires were the worst since 1997, straining relations between Indonesia and its neighbors. About 261,000 hectares (644,931 acres) burned, causing billions of dollars in economic losses for Indonesia.
Many of the fires are deliberately set by agricultural conglomerates and small-time farmers to clear forests and peatland for plantations.