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Brunei Diplomats Seek Smog Relief

April 13, 1998

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (AP) _ The U.S. Embassy in Brunei has requested permission from Washington to allow its staff temporarily relief from the smog-choked capital, the U.S. Ambassador said today.

Nearby wildfires, fueled by the worst drought in 30 years, have cast blankets of smoke over this oil-rich kingdom on the northern coast of Borneo island. The eye-and-throat-stinging smog has sent thousands to hospital emergency rooms, complaining of asthma-like symptoms.

Winds from fire-swept Indonesia brought smoke to neighboring Singapore as well today, shrouding buildings in pollution and reducing visibility to about a mile, the worst level of the year.

While no health advisories were issued, the Pollution Standards Index rose to 78 in the afternoon, the highest level recorded by Singapore authorities this year.

In Borneio, foreign embassies have filed travel alerts and begun to grant staff ``rest and relaxation″ on a rotating basis, embassy officials said.

``We’re waiting for State Department approval,″ said U.S. Ambassador Glen Robert Rease, to fly staff to Australia or the United States.

Rease said other embassies were doing likewise.

In mid-March, the U.S. Embassy filed a travel alert, advising about 200 Americans in Brunei to stay indoors and to wear protective masks if they must go out.

All incoming flights and short-distance outgoing flights were canceled today at the international airport. Visibility this afternoon was about 525 feet, down from 620 feet this morning.

Students at the Brunei International School have had no recess or outdoor sports since January, when the pollution levels climbed to hazardous levels. They strap on pollution masks when walking through the school’s outdoor hallways.

Last month, the government shut down schools for two weeks. They re-opened April 9, but parents have been advised to keep children home when the pollution index exceeds healthy levels.

Attendance at the international school has dropped by half to 400 students and the teaching staff has dwindled from 100 to 70 in recent weeks.

``It’s staggering, absolutely staggering,″ said the school’s principal, Mark Gifford, who walks the school’s grounds with a double-filtered gas mask. ``There will come a point where we have insufficient staff to continue operating.″

In Brunei’s Pollutant Standard Index, a readout above 200 is considered ``very unhealthy,″ above 300 ``hazardous,″ and above 400 ``very hazardous.″

Reports in the local Borneo Bulletin, which runs a daily list of PSI’s around the country, put Sunday’s index at 500.

Othman Jailani, a spokesman for Brunei’s fire department, estimated the fires have blackened 9,880 acres of the nation’s rain forest.

Update hourly