2010/09/04

Texas probing Google over search results

WASHINGTON, September  4, 2010 (AFP) - The attorney general of the US state of Texas has opened an inquiry into whether Internet giant Google manipulates search results.

Google disclosed the antitrust probe in a blog post late Friday following a report by technology website SearchEngineLand.com on the investigation by the Texas authorities.

"We recognize that as Google grows, we're going to face more questions about how our business works," Google's deputy general counsel Don Harrison said.

"As Search Engine Land first reported, we've recently been approached by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office, which is conducting an antitrust review of Google," Harrison said.

"We look forward to answering their questions because we're confident that Google operates in the best interests of our users," he said.

According to Search Engine Land, Abbott has been investigating since July whether Google is "manipulating its paid and editorial results in a way that violates antitrust laws."

The probe stems from complaints by three rival search companies -- Foundem, a British price comparison site; New York-based SourceTool, a website run by parent company TradeComet; and Ohio-based myTriggers.

"They claim that Google's algorithms demote their site because they are a direct competitor to our search engine," Harrison said. "The reality is that we don't discriminate against competitors."

He said that "given that not every website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it's unsurprising that some less relevant, lower quality websites will be unhappy with their ranking."

European regulators opened an informal investigation in February into similar allegations from three Web companies including Foundem.

Harrison suggested Google rival Microsoft was behind the various complaints.

He said Foundem was backed by an organization funded largely by Microsoft and that both TradeComet and myTriggers were represented by Microsoft antitrust attorneys.

The Google counsel also noted that a federal judge earlier this year dismissed a private antitrust lawsuit against Google filed by TradeComet.

Microsoft and Yahoo! teamed up last year in a bid to rival Google in search but have made only slight inroads against the Mountain View, California-based company which controls around 65 percent of the US search market.

Obama to meet ASEAN leaders in New York

WASHINGTON, September 4, 2010 (AFP) - President Barack Obama will meet Southeast Asian leaders this month in New York, the White House said Friday, as the United States tries to bolster its role in a region faced with a rising China.

The White House said that Obama would hold talks with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in New York on September 24, at the time of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

The summit, whose date was earlier confirmed to AFP by a senior official, will mark Obama's latest attempt to reinvigorate US policy towards the dynamic region that he said was neglected by ex-president George W. Bush's team.

The New York meeting will follow the inaugural summit that Obama held last year in Singapore with his counterparts from ASEAN.

In Singapore, "the president and the ASEAN leaders pledged to deepen cooperation in a number of areas of common concern including trade and investment, regional security, disaster management, food and energy security, and climate change," a White House statement said.

"The president looks forward to working with the leaders to assess the progress on these issues, identify future efforts to strengthen US-ASEAN relations, and discuss multilateral approaches for greater regional cooperation," it said.

But the upcoming meeting -- like many at ASEAN -- may risk being overshadowed by controversy over Myanmar, whose military regime is going ahead with November 7 elections despite wide concern over their credibility.

Washington-based diplomats said that the White House held prolonged negotiations with ASEAN leaders on where to hold the summit.

Some Southeast Asian officials preferred a summit in Washington, believing it would carry greater weight and not be seen as one of the myriad "sideline" meetings held each year on the edges of the UN General Assembly.

But the diplomats said that the White House found it was logistically more practical to meet in New York -- and worried about giving too much legitimacy to Myanmar just ahead of the controversial polls.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first spoke of the second ASEAN summit when she visited Vietnam in July, saying that ASEAN and the related ASEAN Regional Forum were "strong, effective architecture for security and prosperity in Asia."

In Hanoi, Clinton called for open access to the South China Sea -- an area of growing tension between China and Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam. China rebuked Clinton for her remarks.

Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said that the second summit would further reassure ASEAN of US commitment.

"That's the bottom line purpose," Bower said.

"It institutionalizes the meeting, which is important both to ASEAN countries and to us because we can't be effective in Asian regional organizations unless we have a balanced engagement with Southeast Asia along the lines of other players like China, Japan and (South) Korea," he said.

However, he said that Myanmar would also likely be a headline issue in the talks.

At the inaugural summit in Singapore, Obama urged Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein to free all political prisoners including the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but to no avail.

The Obama administration last year launched an engagement effort aimed at bringing Myanmar, also known as Burma, out of its isolation. But US officials have been increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress.

The administration has also moved to build relations with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, and sought to forge ahead in historically fraught relationships with communist Vietnam and Laos.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

China halts loans to firms that break environment rules

SHANGHAI, September  4, 2010 (AFP) - China has ordered banks to stop new lending to companies that pollute excessively or consume too much energy, as part of a drive to make its economy more energy efficient, state media said Saturday.

Shao Fujun, director of the People's Bank of China's credit department, said the central bank had established a database to help banks review companies' environmental records, the Shanghai Securities News reported.

More than 30,000 pieces of information regarding companies' environmental violations are in the database, the report said.

Beijing has pledged to slash China's energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010, as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter seeks to reduce pollution and clean up its environment.

Last month the central government ordered 2,087 firms producing steel, coal, cement, aluminium, glass and other materials to close old and obsolete plants by the end of September -- or risk having bank loans frozen and power cut off.

Authorities in the eastern province of Anhui reportedly already cut off electricity to more than 500 factories for a month in mid-August after they failed to meet emission reduction targets.


Google updates privacy policy

SAN FRANCISCO, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - Google updated its privacy policy on Friday, a day after a video cartoon featuring the Internet firm's chief giving away ice cream to snoop on children aired on a giant screen in Times Square.

"We're simplifying and updating Google's privacy policies," Google associate general counsel Mike Yang said Friday in a blog post.

"To be clear, we aren't changing any of our privacy practices; we want to make our policies more transparent and understandable."

Google simplified wording in its privacy policy, "cutting down the parts that are redundant and rewriting the more legalistic bits so people can understand them more easily," according to the attorney.

The California-based Internet giant packed more information into product help pages to make it easier to find and added a new privacy-tools page to the Google online Privacy Center, Yang said.

The announcement came a day after a nonprofit consumer rights group had a "Don't be evil?" animated clip shown on a "Jumbotron" screen above the masses coursing through Times Square in Manhattan.

A cartoon version of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was shown cruising a residential neighborhood in an ice cream truck, spying on children and disclosing their parents' Internet browsing habits.

"We like ice cream as much as anyone, but we like privacy even more," Google said in response to an AFP inquiry regarding the video.

"That's why we provide tools for users to control their privacy online, like Google Dashboard, Ads Preference Manager, Chrome incognito mode and 'off the record' Gmail chat."

Google noted that information about its privacy tools can be found online at google.com/privacy

YouTube to turn profit this year: NY Times

WASHINGTON, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - Google-owned videosharing website YouTube is expected to turn a profit this year on revenue of 450 million dollars, The New York Times reported Friday.

The newspaper, in an article about the rise of advertising on YouTube, said the site's revenue has more than doubled each year for the last three years.

Google does not release revenue figures for YouTube, which the Internet search giant bought for 1.65 billion dollars in 2006, but senior executives have suggested recently that it is near profitability.

The Times quoted unidentified analysts as saying that this is the year the video site will turn the corner and make money.

YouTube has been gradually adding professional content such as full-length television shows and movies to its vast trove of amateur video offerings in a bid to attract advertisers.

Annual revenue of 450 million dollars would still only be a drop in the bucket compared to the money Google makes from search advertising.

The Mountain View, California-based company reported a second-quarter net profit of 1.84 billion dollars in July on revenue of 6.82 billion dollars.

"YouTube is a big component of our display (advertising) revenue, and display is our next big business," Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said in an interview with the Times.

Schmidt said he asked YouTube's management team about a year and a half ago to start focusing on revenue.

He said the strategy had been to amass "an audience first, then figure out the tools that will create the revenue."

Britain's Financial Times reported earlier this week that YouTube is in negotiations with Hollywood studios to launch a global pay-per-view video service by the end of 2010.

It said viewers would stream rather than download the movies and pay about five dollars for newer titles.

They would be available at the same time as their release on DVD and on Apple's iTunes store and Amazon.com, the newspaper said.

2010/09/03

Malaysia to monitor Internet for 'harmful' blogs

KUALA LUMPUR, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia has formed a task force to scour the Internet for blog postings deemed harmful to national unity, authorities said Friday in the latest of a series of actions against new media.

Home ministry deputy secretary general for security Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi said the unit would involve the police, Internet regulators, the information ministry and the attorney general's chambers.

"It is a mechanism that will coordinate these various agencies to help monitor what is being said in cyberspace and to take action against those that are trying to stoke racial tensions and disunity," he told AFP.

Abdul Rahim said the group would also monitor alternative and mainstream media for similar content.

"There is a disturbing trend now appearing on the Internet where some people are inciting racial unrest and causing confusion and this will damage the peace we have in the country," he added.

Abdul Rahim cited the recent case of a Facebook page that insulted Muslim Malays. They make up the majority of Malaysia's multicultural population, alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Police are also investigating ethnic Chinese rapper Wee Meng Chee for sedition, after he posted a three-minute rap on YouTube criticising a Malay headmistress accused of making racial slurs against minority students.

The government has ordered a probe into the case which caused anger among Malaysia's minorities, who complain their rights are being eroded as the country becomes increasingly "Islamised".

In another case, Malaysian journalist Irwan Abdul Rahman was charged this week over a satirical blog which made fun of the state power firm Tenaga, and faces a year's jail if convicted.

The prosecution caused a stir because unlike the mainstream press, the web and online media in Malaysia have remained relatively free, despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism.

Major newspapers and broadcasters are closely linked with the ruling coalition, so the Internet has become a lively forum for dissent and debate.

The government in 1996 pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector.

Singapore dollar touches record high against greenback

SINGAPORE, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - The Singapore dollar touched an all-time high against the US dollar Friday as some Asian currencies were boosted by a return of risk appetite on better US housing and jobs data, analysts said.

The local unit at one point traded at 1.3419 to the US dollar, topping the previous high of 1.3438, said Suresh Kumar Ramanathan, regional rates and forex strategist at Malaysian bank CIMB in Kuala Lumpur.

The Singapore dollar later eased back to 1.3472 in the afternoon.

Analysts said they had no knowledge about any intervention by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the city-state's central bank.

When asked by AFP if he had noticed any possible MAS intervention, Suresh said: "Not really, but it (Singapore dollar) has significantly strengthened.

"But what is interesting is that it looks like they are willing to tolerate a slightly stronger currency."

A currency analyst with a local bank who asked not to be named said: "I think we're close to the threshold already" at which MAS would be expected to step into the market and hold back the local unit's appreciation.

Thomas Harr, head of Asian forex strategy at Standard Chartered bank in Singapore, said he also had no information on whether the central bank went into the market.

But he said the Singapore dollar, like other Asian currencies, "will continue to trade with a heavy tune" against the greenback because of higher risk appetite.

Analysts say investors are willing to take more risks and bet on other currencies with better yields amid signs of a healthy US economy, but retreat to the greenback as a safe haven in times of crisis.

Singapore's central bank conducts monetary policy through the local currency rather than by setting interest rates because of the economy's heavy reliance on external trade.

The Singapore dollar is traded against a basket of currencies of its major trading partners within an undisclosed band known as the nominal effective exchange rate (NEER).


Malaysia's Maybank wants to grow Islamic finance business

SINGAPORE, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia's largest lender Maybank on Friday announced plans to expand its Islamic finance business in Singapore and Indonesia to tap the markets' demand for such services.

In Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, the bank will open at least one new branch a week to increase its network from 290 to 450 eventually, Maybank chief executive Abdul Wahid Omar said.

The lender is also planning to expand its Islamic services in Singapore, whose population is 13 percent Muslim.

Muslims from around the world also live and work in Singapore or use it as a regional business hub.

Maybank is determined to become "the number one Islamic bank in ASEAN," Abdul Wahid said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Islamic banking fuses principles of Islamic law, known as Sharia, and modern banking. Islamic funds are banned from investing in companies associated with tobacco, alcohol or gambling.

The Sharia finance industry, which abides by religious laws that prohibit the payment and collection of interest, is a booming business, which Moody's Investors Service estimates has a market potential of five trillion dollars.

In Malaysia, Maybank had Sharia-compliant assets worth 10.67 billion  dollars in 2009, placing it among the top 20 in the world.

Bank Melli Iran is the global leader in Islamic finance with Sharia-compliant assets of 59.62 billion dollars.

Maybank is aiming to break into the world's top 10 Islamic finance centres, Abdul Wahid said.

"The growth of Islamic banking has typically been double that of the conventional (banking industry) and we have seen that in Malaysia, we have seen that in Indonesia certainly," he said.

"Globally, we can therefore expect a double digit growth in Islamic banking."


Indonesian maid wanted for murder arrested at job interview

KUALA LUMPUR, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - An Indonesian maid who went on the run after being accused of murdering her Malaysian employer's baby son has been arrested after coolly lining up an interview for a new job, police said Friday.

Police have been hunting for the 25-year-old woman, from Java in Indonesia, after the 15-month-old boy died last week and a post-mortem examination indicated foul play.

She was arrested after approaching a family in suburban Kuala Lumpur asking for a job. They recognised her from her picture in the newspaper and alerted police, Ampang district police chief Abdul Jalil Hassan told AFP.

"She went to one of the houses, carrying a plastic bag with some clothes and was asking for a job," Abdul Jalil said.

"She told the family that she ran away from her employer as she could no longer work with them."

"The family noticed she looked similar to the suspect wanted by police in connection to the baby murder case and alerted us. We went to the house and detained the woman," he said.

Malaysia is one of Asia's largest importers of labour and depends heavily on domestic workers, who come mainly from Indonesia.

There are no laws governing their working conditions, and cases of abuse, non-payment and even murder of domestic workers are much more common than incidents of maids committing crimes.

In the death of the baby boy, the maid reportedly telephoned her employer and told him that he had fallen ill and was unconscious.

A report from the post-mortem examination showed the baby had strangulation marks on his neck, and had suffered internal brain haemorrhage and bruises believed to be from being kicked or stepped on, the Star newspaper reported.

The maid faces a death penalty if charged and convicted of murder.

Video lambasting Google on privacy hits Times Square

SAN FRANCISCO, September  3, 2010 (AFP) - A video cartoon featuring Google's chief giving away ice cream to snoop on children aired on a giant screen in Times Square on Thursday as a privacy group continued to hound the Internet giant.

Consumer Watchdog took its gripes with Google to the center of Manhattan, where it paid to have a "Don't be evil?" animated clip shown on a "Jumbotron" screen above the masses coursing through Times Square.

A cartoon version of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was shown cruising a residential neighborhood in an ice cream truck, spying on children and disclosing their parents' Internet browsing habits.

"We're satirizing Schmidt in the most highly-trafficked public square in the nation to make the public aware of how out of touch Schmidt and Google are when it comes to our privacy rights," said Watchdog president Jamie Court.

The snippet displayed as an advertisement in Times Square was from a video clip posted online at insidegoogle.com, a website run by Watchdog.

"We like ice cream as much as anyone, but we like privacy even more," Google said in response to an AFP inquiry regarding the video.
"That's why we provide tools for users to control their privacy online, like Google Dashboard, Ads Preference Manager, Chrome incognito mode and 'off the record' Gmail chat."

The California-based Internet titan said that information about its privacy tools can be found online at google.com/privacy.

China landslides kill eight, 40 missing

BEIJING, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - At least eight people died and 40 were missing after rain-triggered landslides struck a community in southwestern China, state media reported on Thursday.

The landslides swept through a mountain village near the city of Baoshan in a rugged region of Yunnan province, Xinhua news agency said.

State television said the landslides hit Wama village late Wednesday evening after heavy rain.
Up to 71 people from 20 families had been trapped in the debris, while 23 people had been rescued, the report said.

State media showed pictures of police, firemen and soldiers digging through collapsed buildings covered with mounds of rocks and mud on a mountainside.

Floods and related natural disasters triggered by torrential rains have affected 230 million people nationwide in China this year and resulted in the evacuation of more than 15 million people, the government has said.

The government said 3,185 people have been killed nationwide in this year's flood-related disasters, with 1,050 listed as missing as of August 31.

Much of the flooding has been centred on the Yangtze River in south-central China but cities and provinces across the country have been affected.

A devastating mudslide in the northwestern province of Gansu last month left at least 1,467 dead and 298 missing.

More than 4,150 people are estimated to have died in disastrous flooding in 1998, when heavy rain swelled the Yangtze, China's longest river, and many tributaries.

Eighteen million people were evacuated and millions of homes were destroyed in those floods, the country's worst in recent memory.

Bumper-to-bumper again as epic China traffic jam returns

BEIJING, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - A huge traffic snarl stretching at least 120 kilometres (75 miles) reappeared in northern China Thursday, with thousands of cargo trucks stuck in a bottleneck, state media said.

State television broadcast images of a long line of mostly cargo trucks inching slowly through Inner Mongolia on a major highway leading toward Beijing that has come to symbolise China's traffic gridlock problem.

"You could say the highway has become a big parking lot," a CCTV reporter at the scene said, estimating the number of vehicles stuck in the congestion at more than 10,000.

The stretch of highway linking Inner Mongolia and the northern province of Hebei with Beijing is among the nation's busiest as the capital of more than 20 million people sucks in huge shipments of goods.

Major snarls have materialised recently, which have been blamed on highway maintenance projects and accidents.

Traffic slowed to a snail's pace in June and July for nearly a month, according to earlier press reports. In August, state media said some drivers were stuck in a huge traffic jam on the route for nine days.

The traffic subsequently cleared but has worsened again due to accidents and traffic restrictions imposed by authorities, CCTV said.

China has embarked in recent years on a huge expansion of its national road system but the volume traffic periodically overwhelms the grid.

According to government data, Beijing is on track to have five million cars on its roads by year's end. The four-million mark was passed in December.

Malaysia frees JI militant after eight years: police

KUALA LUMPUR, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - An alleged member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group has been released from detention after being held without trial for almost eight years, Malaysian police said Thursday,

Police counter-terrorism unit director Mohamad Fuzi Harun said Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had ordered the release of Shamsuddin Sulaiman, 40.

JI, a regional militant outfit linked to Al-Qaeda, has been blamed for major attacks including the 2002 Bali bombings.

Shamsuddin was detained in June 2002 under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Like other detainees before him, he is being released during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

E. Nalini, spokesperson for the Abolish ISA Movement, welcomed Shamsuddin's release but demanded that all ISA detainees be freed.

"We condemn the government for being selective in the release of the detainees. There are 14 people being held under the ISA and four in police custody for alleged involvement with terror, document forgery and human trafficking activities," she said.

Malaysia's controversial ISA has been used against alleged terrorists as well as government opponents in the past.


China urges restart to N.Korea nuclear talks

BEIJING, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - China on Thursday urged its fellow parties to six-nation North Korean nuclear talks to "meet halfway" as Beijing continues to try to drum up support for a resumption of the stalled negotiations.

The talks -- which are hosted by Beijing -- had previously secured North Korean pledges to give up its nuclear programmes, only to see Pyongyang reverse course and storm out of the discussions last year.

"The current situation on the Korean peninsula is complicated and sensitive," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

"We hope that relevant parties can remain calm, exercise restraint, meet each other halfway and do more to alleviate tensions."

China's top North Korean nuclear envoy Wu Dawei has recently visited the two Koreas, Japan and the United States in an effort to restart the negotiations.

Jiang said Wu will next visit Russia, the sixth nation involved in the stop-start discussions, which were first convened in 2003.

"We hope that parties can make joint efforts so that the issue of northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula can be brought back to the track of dialogue, consultation and political settlement," Jiang said.

The March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that left 46 sailors dead has remained a key obstacle to restarting the denuclearisation talks, with South Korea and the United States blaming the incident on North Korea.

Pyongyang has adamantly denied involvement.

On Wednesday, the United States said it planned more consultations with its partners after hearing China's perspective on reviving the talks.

The United States wants to see unspecified actions from North Korea that would make renewed talks worthwhile while also calling for an end to North Korean provocations, a US diplomat said.

Amid the diplomatic flurry, Beijing's state media quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il telling Chinese President Hu Jintao during a secretive visit to China last week that he was willing to return to the negotiating table.

Malaysian blogger faces jail over satirical post

KUALA LUMPUR, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - A Malaysian journalist was charged Thursday over a satirical blog which made fun of the state power firm Tenaga, and faces a year's jail if convicted.

State media said that Irwan Abdul Rahman, a 36-year-old sub-editor with a Malay-language daily, pleaded not guilty in the Sessions Court to a charge of posting a fictitious comment.

It said he was accused of "intent to hurt" over the posting, entitled "TNB to sue WWF over Earth Hour" which jokingly said Tenaga would take action over the World Wildlife Fund's annual energy-saving initiative.

In an entry earlier this week, Irwan said on his blog http:nose4news.wordpress.com that he was hoping "for cool heads and a developed sense of humour to prevail".

He has deleted the offending item, which he said was merely "a stupid joke that does no one harm".

Malaysia's opposition condemned the prosecution as "not only harsh but ridiculous".

"Does this mean a satire or a joke is now illegal in Malaysia? What has become of our country?" said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party which is a member of the opposition alliance.

Lim said Malaysia had a great tradition of satire, which was also used in the independence struggle against British colonial rule, and that the government must respect freedom of expression.

Irwan's prosecution has caused a stir because unlike the mainstream press, the web and online media in Malaysia have remained relatively free, despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism.

Major newspapers and broadcasters are closely linked with the ruling coalition, so the Internet has become a lively forum for dissent and debate.

The government in 1996 pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector.

2010/09/02

Surge in pirate attacks in South China Sea: IMB

KUALA LUMPUR, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - Seafarers have reported a surge in attacks by armed pirates in a South China Sea shipping lane, an international maritime watchdog said Thursday.

Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre, said there had been eight attacks off Indonesia's Mangkai island in the past two weeks.

"It appears one or more groups of pirates are operating in the area. Pirates are armed with guns and machetes and robbed vessels of cash and crew valuables," he told AFP.

Since February the IMB has been informed of 26 attacks in the area, he said, adding that the maritime body had asked Indonesia to beef up patrols to prevent further incidents.

Mangkai island lies on a busy sea passage running along the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. It is a major route for ships heading between East Asian nations and the Pacific Ocean.

After passing Mangkai they continue into the Malacca Strait, which was once the world's top piracy hotspot. In recent years however attacks there have dropped dramatically, thanks to coordinated patrols by border nations.

Choong said that in the latest incident on Wednesday, six pirates armed with guns, knives and steel rods boarded a Panama-flagged tanker. They stole the cash on board before escaping.

On Monday, pirates boarded a Hong Kong-flagged ship, stripped the vessel of valuables and injured three crew members before escaping.

China auto sales up 55.7 percent in August

SHANGHAI, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - China's auto sales jumped 55.7 percent year on year in August, boosted by Beijing's new subsidies scheme for energy-saving vehicles, state media said Thursday.

Sales in the world's largest auto market rose to 1.22 million units in August, the Shanghai Securities News reported, citing figures from the China Automotive Technology and Research Centre.

The figures were 15.1 percent higher than July and the growth was likely to continue into September, the report said.

US auto giant General Motors said Thursday its sales in China grew 19.2 percent in August from a year earlier to 181,625 units.

"August auto sales exceeded market expectations, indicating obvious improvement in the fundamentals of the industry," Zheng Dong, an auto analyst at China International Capital Corp, said in a research note.

He noted that purchases were partially boosted by discounts offered by car dealers to spur turnover.

He said more buyers could drop their wait-and-see stance and cause sales to "explode" in the typically brisk months of September and October.

China announced a trial programme in June to subsidise environmentally-friendly vehicles in five cities as part of efforts to reduce emissions, save energy and spur the development of green technology.

Under the trial project, the government offers subsidies of up to 60,000 yuan (8,850 dollars) for hybrid and electric cars and 3,000 yuan for fuel-saving models.

China's auto sales for 2009 hit 13.64 million units as the nation took over the title of the world's top auto market from the United States.

Sales have slowed in recent months, partially due to seasonal factors, but 2010 is still forecast to see more than 15 million units shifted -- an increase of about 20 percent year on year.

The strong August figures boosted shares of Chinese auto makers Thursday.

SAIC Motor, the nation's biggest car maker by sales volume, closed 8.9 percent higher on the Shanghai stock market while Hong Kong-listed Dong Feng was up 2.4 percent in the afternoon.

Myanmar junta leader to visit China

BEIJING, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - The head of Myanmar's military junta, General Than Shwe, will visit key ally China next week for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders, Beijing announced Thursday.

While Myanmar is the subject of tough Western sanctions, China is the junta's main trading partner and an eager investor in the isolated state's sizeable natural resources.

"During the visit both sides will take the opportunity to review the history of bilateral affairs and brief each other on domestic developments," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

Besides meeting Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing, Than Shwe will travel to Shanghai to see the World Expo and will visit southern China's booming export hub Shenzhen during the September 7-11 visit, Jiang said.

News reports last week said the 77-year-old chief of the ruling junta, who has run the country since 1992, had stepped down from his military post ahead of the country's first election in 20 years.

This was later denied by Myanmar officials. But they said more than 70 positions had changed in the biggest military reshuffle in decades.

China has long helped to keep Myanmar afloat through trade ties, arms sales, and by shielding it from UN sanctions over rights abuses as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council.

Two Chinese warships made a rare visit to Myanmar this week to promote military ties, Chinese state media reported.


Malaysia says Indonesia spat may go to international court

KUALA LUMPUR, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia said Thursday its ongoing maritime border spat with Indonesia, which flared again recently, triggering angry protests, could end up in the International Court of Justice.

Deputy Foreign Minister Richard Riot said both countries erred in the latest incident which saw Malaysian fishermen and Indonesian officials detained. In the ensuing protest human faeces were flung at its embassy in Jakarta.

Riot said the neighbours had met on a regular basis to try to resolve the maritime border dispute but that there was still no agreement on demarcation.

"I don't think it will be quick. After 16 meetings it has not been resolved so I don't think it can be solved that fast," he told AFP.

"If it comes to the breaking point, the International Court of Justice will be the place where the claims are resolved as the last resort," he said, referring to the United Nations' highest court, in The Hague.

Last month, seven Malaysian fishermen were detained in disputed waters off southern Malaysia by Indonesian authorities who accused them of encroaching into their territory.

Three of the Indonesian officials were detained by Malaysian maritime authorities who intercepted the group as they were being taken back to Indonesia.

All those involved have been released but the incident provoked an angry response in Indonesia, forcing security at the Malaysian mission in Jakarta to be stepped up.

Riot said the latest spat between the neighbours, who have a history of squabbles, was a result of "mistakes" by both sides.

"Both sides are wrong. They came into our waters to tow away our fishermen and we stopped them in their waters, while they were towing our fishermen to Indonesia. We have both made mistakes but we must move on," he said.

The deputy minister said the two nations would meet again on September 6 in Malaysia to try to soothe tempers and work out a way to move on.

"Despite the protests in Indonesia, we will not issue a travel advisory as things have calmed down and it is only a small group that is instigating things," he said, referring to the protest in Jakarta.

"We want good relations with Indonesia, we cannot allow things to get out of hand," he added.

Singapore Airlines curbs crew's Facebook musings

SINGAPORE, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore Airlines (SIA) has directed its flight attendants to avoid discussing work-related matters on Facebook and other social networking websites, company officials said Thursday.

The image-conscious airline, which is consistently ranked by passengers as one of the world's best, took action after some cabin crew were found to have discussed confidential job issues on Facebook.

The Straits Times newspaper reported Thursday that some crew members got warning letters for grumbling about duty rosters, passengers, and their bosses and colleagues on Facebook.

"Our staff may of course have a blog or Facebook and Twitter account like any other member of the public," an airline spokeswoman told AFP.

"But our policy is clear that they must not comment on work matters about business or customers, so as to protect proprietary information as well as the privacy of other staff and our customers."

A posting on the SIA staff union website stated that "recently, there have been a few cases of crew being penalized for their postings on Facebook about company-related matters such as their rosters".

"Please refrain from such postings on your Facebook wall or any public forums or blog, as you do not know who is really lurking out there and who are really your friends," it added.


New Zealand police say Google data gathering was not a crime

WELLINGTON, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - New Zealand police said Thursday that Google did not commit a criminal offence when it collected data from wireless networks for its "Street View" mapping service.

The New Zealand Privacy Commissioner called in police in June after Google admitted that its cars taking photographs of cities in more than 30 countries had inadvertently gathered personal data sent over unsecured wifi systems.

Privacy regulators in Australia, Europe, the US and Canada also launched investigations into data the web giant's camera-equipped cars collected while taking photos of streets and houses.

New Zealand police said Google's actions did not constitute a criminal offence and they had referred the matter back to the Privacy Commissioner.

"An investigation by police has determined that there is no evidence to suggest a criminal offence has been committed," Detective Senior Sergeant John van den Heuvel from the NZ police cyber crime centre said.

However, van den Heuvel said the case underlined the need for web users to put in place security measures when using wireless networks.

Assistant Privacy Commissioner Katrine Evans said the police finding did not mean the regulator's probe into Google had been abandoned, but she declined to give details of the investigation.

Concerns in the case centre on Google's collection of so-called "payload data", unencrypted information sent on wireless networks that are not protected by passwords which can contain personal information, including the content of e-mails.

Google said in July that its "Street View" cars would resume operations in some countries but collect only photos and 3D imagery, not wifi data.

Google New Zealand was not immediately available for comment, however in June a spokesman said the company was "profoundly sorry" for the mistake.

China landslides kill three, 57 missing: state media

BEIJING, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - At least three people died and 57 were missing after rain-triggered landslides struck a village in southwestern China, state media reported on Thursday.

The landslides swept through the village of Wama in mountainous Yunnan province, Xinhua news agency said.

State television said they occurred following heavy rain. No other details were given.

Floods and related natural disasters triggered by heavy rains have affected 230 million people nationwide this year and resulted in the evacuation of more than 15 million people, the government has said.

A devastating mudslide in northwestern Gansu province last month left at least 1,467 dead and 298 missing.

The government said this week that 3,185 people have been killed nationwide, while 1,050 are listed as missing in flood-related natural disasters so far this year.

Malaysia's gay community begins to push the limits

KUALA LUMPUR, September  2, 2010 (AFP) - When Malaysia's only openly homosexual pastor announced he was establishing the nation's first gay church, the proposal was met with a torrent of outrage and criticism.

Reverend Ouyang Wen Feng faced down threats to block the plan by government and religious leaders who said it would encourage homosexuality -- still a crime punishable by 20 years in jail in the Muslim-majority nation.

The church he co-founded has however been operating quietly in suburban Kuala Lumpur for the past three years, drawing a group of gay Christians for Sunday services and bible studies.

Ouyang's battle is part of a campaign being fought on many fronts in Malaysia, where there is a growing sense of activism among the gay community which is beginning to mobilise to fight for its rights.

"We are working on encouraging more people to join the church, for Christians to come out and live authentic lives," says the pastor, who was married for nine years until he "came out" publicly in 2006.

"Whether one is gay or straight or bisexual, they are sexual orientations, it is not something we do that makes us gay."

Ouyang says the church, which also embraces bisexuals and transsexuals as well as welcoming heterosexuals to its services, wants to help the community know they are not "alone in fighting the battle".

"When I was young, how I wished someone who was good, highly admired and respected in the society could come out and tell me 'I am gay too,'," says the 40-year-old.

Homosexuality remains a social taboo across the racial and religious spectrum in Malaysia, a conservative country which is also home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Gay men and women are a visible presence out in public, and on the Internet where they are connected through online forums.

However, authorities periodically crack down on the thriving gay scene, carrying out raids at gay-friendly bars or massage parlours, leaving some with a constant fear of persecution.

Few feel they can declare their sexuality openly, and there was a dearth of groups representing the community until 2008, when the first "Seksualiti Merdeka" or "Sexual Independence" festival was held.

Organiser Pang Khee Teik, an art gallery owner, said he was inspired by rising activism in the region.

India and Nepal have de-criminalised homosexuality in recent years, in Thailand the annual Gay Pride festival is being revived, and even in conservative Indonesia there is an annual gay film festival.

"We thought the time was right to replicate something similar in Malaysia," Pang says. "We are trying to tell people: you have sexual rights whether the state recognises it or not."

"The long-term goal could be the repeal of laws against sodomy and oral sex for instance," says Pang, adding that anti-discrimination laws are also needed.

The annual festival, which includes talks, music performances and film screenings, has seen the number of participants double from 400 in 2008 to about 800 last year.

It will be held for the third time later this year and has managed to avoid any action from protesters or the authorities, partly due to efforts to keep it low-key.

But religious figures who have an influential role in Malaysian society remain vehemently opposed to the new mood. A top religious body in 2008 also issued a "fatwa" or Islamic religious ban on lesbian sex.

"Homosexuality is going to destroy the world as we are not thankful to God's creation and we are going against His wishes," says outspoken Islamic cleric Harussani Zakaria.

"Homosexuality is a very bad thing. God has created men and women, how can it be man with man, and woman with woman?"

The gay community takes heart from small steps, including a recent Malaysian Film Censorship Board decision to reverse a ban on the depiction of homosexuality and allow gay characters to be featured in films.

But in an indication of the distance campaigners still have to go, the new guidelines also stipulate that gay characters must repent or go straight before the credits roll.

"They recognise that we do exist and that is a something positive, at least," says Azri, who has a boyfriend of five years, as he sips coffee at one of Kuala Lumpur's upmarket shopping malls.

"My ideal world is to be recognised as a couple and enjoy the rights just like any other heterosexual couples," says the boyish-looking 28-year-old.

"We can't rush, we are slowly building the momentum."

Climate: Risks loom for China: study

PARIS, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - Climate change could reduce key harvests in China by a fifth if the gloomiest scenarios prove true, according to a study on Wednesday.

Publishing in the journal Nature, a team of Chinese scientists say China's climate "has clearly warmed" over the past half century, gaining 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1960.

The hotspots were northeastern China with a warming trend of 0.36 C (0.65 F) per decade, and Inner Mongolia, with a warming of 0.4 C (0.7 F) per decade.

Nationally, heatwaves have become more common, the number of cold days has fallen sharply and glaciers that are vital river feeders are in retreat, they say.

The last century was the warmest period since 1600 and the country's seven warmest years have all occurred in the past decade.

Climate extremes included droughts which hit the country in the 1960s, the late 1970s, early 1980s, the 1990s and in northeastern China in the last decade.

In 1998, floods inundated 21 million hectares (52.5 million acres) of land, destroyed five million homes in the Yangtze basin and inflicted 20 billion dollars in damage.

Floods this year affected 230 million people, of whom more than 15 million had to be evacuated from their homes, and left more than 4,200 people dead or missing, according to a toll issued on Tuesday.

The paper, lead-authored by Peking University environmental scientist Shilong Piao, warns of problems for China's racing economy in coming decades if climate change bites hard.

Accurate prediction, though, is hard, it says.

"China experienced explosive economic growth in recent decades, but with only seven percent of the world's arable land available to feed 20 percent of the world's population, China's economy may be vulnerable to climate change itself," it warns.

The biggest problem could be water stress, amplified by a growing and increasingly wealthy population.

Water is abundant in southern China but sparse in the country's north, and overall China's per capita water availability is only 25 percent of the world average.

"Many regions lie in transitional zones where water resources, and hence agricultural production, could be affected positively or negatively by changes in climate," the study says.

In the most favourable scenario, grain yields by mid-century could remain stable or benefit from the rise in carbon dioxide levels.

But in the worst scenario, there could be declines of four to 14 percent for rice, between two and 20 percent for wheat and between zero and 23 percent for corn in cases where these crops are rainfed rather than irrigated.

The comparison is the yields of these crops between 1996 and 2000. Any future improvements in agro-technology in coming decades are not factored in.

"The range of model results is large, implying large uncertainties," cautions the paper.

The many unknowns are reflected by the wide range in predicting warming for China as a whole -- from 1 C to 5 C (1.8-9.0 F) by 2100, depending on worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.

Computer simulations for climate impacts have advanced substantially for modelling what will happen worldwide, but lag when it comes to predicting regional effects, especially on rainfall, the paper says.

"To reach a more definitive conclusion, future work must... develop a better understanding of the managed and unmanaged responses to crops to changes in climate, diseases, pests and atmospheric constituents."

2010/09/01

India wants Google, Skype to set up local servers

NEW DELHI, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - India's government on Wednesday said BlackBerry, Google, Skype and other communications providers must set up servers in the country to allow security forces to intercept Internet data.

G.K. Pillai, the chief bureaucrat in the Home Ministry, said "all people who operate communication services in India should have a server in India" to aid in monitoring encrypted data.

The government has already asked BlackBerry to set up a server in India to track the smartphone's secure messaging system and "we have made this clear to other companies" that they must do the same, he told a news conference.

Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia said earlier in the week it would set up a server in the country by early November to ensure that the government had access to data carried by its smartphones.

India's security forces, battling insurgencies ranging from Kashmir in the northwest to the remote northeast, are worried militants could use encrypted services to plan attacks.

Pillai's comments came two days after India gave BlackBerry's Canadian maker a two-month window to provide a solution to its security concerns to avert a shutdown of its encrypted corporate email and messenger chatting services.

Skype, the Internet phone service, and Google, which uses powerful encryption technology for its Gmail email service, are also in the government's firing line as it widens its crackdown on communications firms.

BlackBerry's reprieve came after the government said the handset's manufacturer Research in Motion, or RIM, had made proposals for giving security forces "lawful access" to messages carried on the handsets.

"Discussions with BlackBerry are still continuing. We have given them 60 days' time to find a solution" to government demands for access to messages carried by RIM handsets, Pillai said.

India's home ministry has said it is now reviewing the feasibility of RIM's monitoring proposals.

India, which has the world's fastest growing number of mobile users, is a key market for BlackBerry, which has 1.1 million customers in the country.

"All security concerns (related to BlackBerry) need to be addressed," Home Minister P. Chidambaram said late Tuesday. "Our stand is firm. We look forward to getting access to the data.

There is no uncertainty over it."

BlackBerry has become a global market leader in the smartphone sector thanks to its heavy data-protection and analysts say any compromise with the Indian government could damage its popularity.

RIM, which insists it has cut no special deal with India, is already facing threats to its dominance in corporate mobile email from other smartphone makers globally such as Apple and Nokia.

The Times of India reported Wednesday it was the flood of international visitors expected for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi next month and US President Barack Obama's planned visit in November that resulted in the reprieve for BlackBerry rather than any breakthrough in talks with the company.

The blackout of BlackBerry's core features would have disrupted communications for the two events, the newspaper said, adding there would be more talks with RIM before Obama's visit.


Fwd: BP sells Malaysian assets to Petronas

LONDON, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - British oil giant BP has agreed to sell some of its Malaysian assets to local state energy firm Petronas for 363 million dollars (285 million euros), the group announced on Wednesday.

"BP today announced that it has agreed to sell its interests in ethylene and polyethylene production in Malaysia to Petronas," the London-listed company said in a statement.

"The agreement concerns BP's 15 percent interest in Ethylene Malaysia and 60 percent interest in Polyethylene Malaysia."

Both production facilities are operated by Petronas, and are located at Kertih on the eastern coast of Malaysia.

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the year, subject to certain conditions, and does not affect BP's other businesses in the Asian nation.

BP is seeking to sell off up to 30 billion dollars of assets over the next 18 months as it faces spiralling costs from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.

At the start of August, the group agreed to offload its Colombian business for 1.9 billion dollars (1.4 billion euros) to national oil company Ecopetrol and Talisman of Canada.

Petronas, Malaysia's biggest company in terms of profit, assets and revenue, saw its net profit plunge 23.2 percent due to weak demand and low oil and gas prices in the group's last fiscal year that ended on March 31.

Taiwanese director chosen as Asian Filmmaker of the Year

SEOUL, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - South Korea's most prestigious film festival said Wednesday it has chosen Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang as its Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

The Pusan International Film Festival praised Tsai's work over the past three decades for pioneering unexplored areas that overcome the limitations of the art film industry.

"His 30-year-long devotion to filmmaking has greatly influenced Asian cinema and made considerable contributions to enhance the global status of Asian cinema," it said in a statement.

"He is renowned for seeking fresh ways of communicating with his audience... We can find the root of his endless spirit of challenging himself and the borderlines of art in his earlier works in the 1990s."

Malaysian-born Tsai is best known for "Vive L'Amour" that won the Golden Lion (best picture) award at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, and "The River" that won the Silver Bear/Special Jury Prize at the 1997 Berlin International Film Festival.

The 52-year-old has also won numerous awards with other films.

He is considered a leading exponent of the "Second New Wave" -- a group of Taiwanese directors in the 1990s who produced films with realistic and sympathetic portrayals of life rather than melodramas or action pictures.

The festival, held in the southern port city of Busan since 1996, will be staged from October 7-15 this year.

China intensifies military build-up against Taiwan: reports

TAIPEI, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - China is ramping-up its military presence facing Taiwan despite the easing of hostilities across the Strait, a defence ministry report cited by local media warned Wednesday.

"Although the cross-Strait ties have improved significantly in recent years, the Chinese communists' military have not slowed at all their pace of build-up aimed at Taiwan," the United Daily News said, citing the ministry report.

In a report to the US Congress last month, the Pentagon also warned that China's military build-up against the island has "continued unabated" despite improving political relations across the Taiwan Strait.

China's military spending for 2010 rose 7.5 percent on last year, in spite of the global economic downturn, said the Taiwan report which was sent to parliament last week.

Looking ahead, the defence report said Beijing may offer concessions to Taipei on minor issues but will not budge on the decades-old dispute over the island's sovereignty.

Ties between Taiwan and the mainland have improved markedly since 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party came to power.

But despite the fast warming ties, Beijing still refuses to renounce the use of force against the island, saying it was aimed at preventing the independence movement gathering ground on the island.

The People's Liberation Army may also attack the island "should the military tip the balance seriously towards Beijing," the defence report was quoted as saying.

It also cautioned of the likelihood of Chinese military action should Taipei push for a referendum on independence, or if it amends the constitution in favour of independence.

Last month's Pentagon report said China is investing in nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, submarines, aircraft carriers and cyber warfare.

"The balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favor," the report said.

Beijing still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification -- by force if necessary -- even though the island has ruled itself since 1949 at the end of a civil war.

Once-banned, Jia Zhangke seeks wider audience in China

SHANGHAI, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - China's Jia Zhangke has been hailed abroad as one of the most important living directors but his films have had little impact at home. The once-banned filmmaker hopes the World Expo can help change that.

Jia -- whose award-winning work on life in modern China is characterised by long scenes and lush cinematography -- has recently been living a whirlwind existence.

At 40, he became the youngest recipient of the Leopard of Honour for life achievement at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival in August. Organisers called him "one of the major revelations of the last two decades and one of the greatest filmmakers working today".

New York's Museum of Modern Art organised a retrospective of his films in March and in May his latest effort -- the documentary "I Wish I Knew", an oral history of Shanghai -- premiered in Cannes. In September, he'll be in Toronto.

But amid the avalanche of foreign acclaim, Jia said one breakthrough stands out for him -- "I Wish I Knew" is being screened at both mainland cinemas and at the Expo in China's most cosmopolitan city for 100 days.

"The movie touches on sensitive issues. Once we deal with these events that influenced Chinese people's destiny, we can start to form collective memories, and we can form a common sense of Chinese society," Jia said in an interview.

"By the end of October, when Expo is over, at least 200,000 people will have seen the film. This is a very good opportunity."

Few Chinese saw his gritty first film "Pickpocket", which led censors to slap Jia with a lifetime ban at age 30 for portraying the country in an unflattering light.

But he continued his work in secret, becoming a leader of China's "sixth generation" of filmmakers, making independent features outside the state system.

International fame earned Jia another chance -- the ban was rescinded in 2004 when censors approved his film "The World", his first to be distributed to mainland cinemas.

He pushed boundaries with his 2006 "Still Life" -- set amidst the demolition for the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam -- which won top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

But he fanned fears he had lost his indie credibility last year by  withdrawing from the Melbourne International Film Festival to avoid appearing with Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur leader branded a separatist by Beijing.

The state-owned Shanghai Film Group Corp partly funded "I Wish I Knew", which focuses on the parts of Shanghai being rubbed out by the gleaming modern buildings that government-sponsored films usually spotlight.

Even now that he is operating within the system, Jia is still seen as unpredictable.

"I Wish I Knew" was due to debut in China at June's Shanghai International Film Festival but was pulled at the last minute because much of the dialogue was in local dialect and the required Chinese subtitles were not ready.

"The next day, lots of (Chinese) media reported that the movie may have been banned," he said, chuckling.

He dismisses comparisons to Zhang Yimou, another former outsider who found official favour by working on the Beijing Olympics, which, like Expo, was seen as a projection of China's growing global clout.

"This movie is not made for Expo. It is not made to serve Expo," Jia said.

"I Wish I Knew" tackles a theme that is present in much of Jia's work -- global forces turning individuals' lives upside down.

He relies on the power of the words of his 18 subjects -- from painter Chen Danqing, 57, who describes life during the Cultural Revolution, to 28-year-old author, blogger and race car driver Han Han -- to explore twists in China's history.

His slow narrative pace contrasts with his personality, Jia said, describing himself as a bundle of energy who was obsessed with breakdancing as a teen.

In his films, he forces himself to slow down in response to China's rapid transformation, he said.
"When you are observing a fast-changing society, you need to pay full attention," he said.

After a decade of fly-on-the-wall films -- and criticising others for escaping into the past -- Jia's next project is a martial arts epic with Hong Kong director Johnnie To set a century ago.

"I used to think China's modernising reforms started in 1978, but then I realised ever since the late Qing Dynasty, China has been chasing and longing for modernisation," he said.

Liquid Singaporeans investing in fine wines - Focus

SINGAPORE, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - A narrow flight of stairs leads up to a well-appointed room in a colonial building in the banking district where moneyed Singaporeans gather regularly to discuss investment opportunities.

But they don't talk about shares, derivatives, commodities or property.

Instead, they sip fine wine at small tables facing a wide array of investment-grade vintages and appreciate panoramic views of the Singapore River and parliament.

"This is where we hold wine tasting sessions and make presentations to clients," said Mohan Nainan Nainan, the chief executive officer of homegrown wine investment company Assetton.

His client Dennis Ng, who runs mortgage consultancy HousingLoanSg.com, began investing in fine wines in 2007 after selling most of his stocks before financial markets crashed the following year.

Ng is among a growing number of investors who think wine is a safer bet than traditional financial instruments and assets.

"Investors should wait three to five years for good capital appreciation," he said.

The Assetton boss couldn't agree more.

"Look at the bank interest rates. Look at what happened in the financial crisis. People are more educated now. People are willing (to invest in wines) and they've been exposed," Nainan said.

Assetton, set up in late 2007, specialises in premium wines from France and caters to high-net-worth individuals as well as working professionals with smaller budgets of around 10,000 euros (12,000 US dollars).

Assetton buys wine for investors and stores it in facilities in France.

Nainan said his business grew during the recent global financial crisis, and predicted a 250 percent increase in revenues this year over 2009, but declined to give exact figures.

Prices of fine wine are holding up well and their value increased sharply between 2005 and 2009, said Serge Forti, the chief executive officer for the Asia-Pacific region at BNP Paribas' wealth management division.

"There was only one significant drop which was noted over this period, in the fourth quarter of 2008, but since then, it has gone up by 13 percent over 2009," he added.

Singapore and Hong Kong are strong markets for fine-wine investment but China and other developing countries are playing a bigger role, said Forti.

He said the short-term prospects of investing in fine wines were very promising, mainly driven by an outstanding 2009 vintage -- especially from France's Bordeaux region -- as well as high Asian demand and a weaker euro.

"It is a live investment growing much faster in global value," he said.

Chad Merchant, executive director of wine investment provider Premium Liquid Assets, said that among alternative asset-class investment options, "only wine offers such a quantifiable track record".

"The well-established secondary market for top wines, primarily from Bordeaux, ensures that investors can know how their assets are performing on a spot-check basis," he said.

"The transparency of the market and the relative ease of liquidation places fine wine in a class of its own when it comes to alternative investments."

Merchant cited the industry's "Liv-ex 100" index which tracks the 100 most traded wines in the world.

"In the past five years, which includes the worst global recession since the 1920s, this index has gained over 166 percent in value," he said.

"Over the past year, slow recovery from the worldwide financial crisis, coupled with the most extraordinary harvest in Bordeaux in over 60 years, has driven some fine wine prices to record highs," he added.

According to Assetton estimates, premium wines like the Chateau Angelus see good appreciation, with the 2005 vintage first released at 155 euros per bottle now commanding an average price of 288 euros.

And with a weak euro, Nainan's customers are asking for rarer vintages.

"Fine wine has been around for hundreds of years. It's very steady. In a crisis everything gets affected... but wine is the last one to be affected because it has little correlation to the market as a whole, and it is the first to recover," he said.

"You don't buy on credit -- people pay cash. There's no such thing as half way through -- you can't service loans."

Wine consultant Malcolm Tham believes it is the sentimental value associated with wine, not just the transactional worth, which ensures it remains less volatile than the stock market.

"It's not just for the money that you hold wines," he said. "If you have your hands on the right type of wine then you're safe, definitely."

Microsoft launches advertising platform in China

BEIJING, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - Microsoft has launched an advertising platform in China in an attempt to grab market share from rival Google, which has been wrangling with Beijing over censorship, state media said Wednesday.

The US Internet titan's adCenter will target Chinese exporters wanting to advertise overseas, said Anderson Liu, general manager of Microsoft's domestic joint venture MSN China.

"It's time to join the market and let Chinese advertisers have more choices," Liu was quoted by the China Daily as saying.

AdCenter helps businesses place advertisements online such as on Microsoft's Bing search engine.

Microsoft hopes revenue from the pay-per-click ads will account for half of MSN China's business in the future, Liu said, without providing further details.

In July, Google parted ways with two Chinese advertisers following its standoff with Beijing over censorship and cyberattacks the US search giant claims originated in China.

Google cut ties with Universal Internet Media and Xi'an Weihua Network, two major advertising agencies that worked in eastern and northwestern China, the China Daily said, citing Marsha Wang, Google China spokeswoman.

In January, Google said it would not buckle to Chinese government pressure to censor its content, and threatened to pull out of the country entirely.

It later effectively shut down its Chinese site google.cn, re-routing mainland users to its uncensored site in Hong Kong.

In March, a group of 27 Chinese advertising agencies sent Google a letter calling for talks over compensation for possible business losses amid the censorship wrangle.

Google's share of China's online market fell to 24.2 percent in the three months to June, from 30.9 percent in the first quarter, research firm Analysys International said in a recent report.

China launches war games in Yellow Sea

BEIJING, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - China on Wednesday launched live-fire naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, state media said, after voicing opposition to similar war games to be staged there by the United States and South Korea.

The Beihai fleet of the navy of the People's Liberation Army will conduct a "live ammunition drill" through Saturday in waters off the eastern coast near the city of Qingdao, Xinhua news agency reported.

The report said many of the planes, vessels and battlefield weaponry to be used in the exercises were unveiled at the National Day military parade on October 1 last year, when China celebrated 60 years of Communist rule.

"This is an annual routine training, mainly involving the shooting of shipboard artillery," Xinhua said in a previous report, citing China's defence ministry.

The United States and South Korea are set to carry out a new round of joint drills in the Yellow Sea beginning Sunday, in another show of force against North Korea following the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

Any military drills involving the United States in the Yellow Sea are a sensitive issue because of the area's proximity to China and the disputed maritime boundary between North and South Korea.

China has bristled at the idea of a US aircraft carrier group patrolling waters near its coast, although the US military has said the planned anti-submarine exercise would not involve a carrier.

The United States and South Korea in July staged massive joint naval and air exercises in the nearby Sea of Japan (East Sea), which also drew criticism from Beijing -- North Korea's closest ally and trade partner.

Seoul and its allies say the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan in March was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack, but Beijing has refused to join in international condemnation of Pyongyang over the incident.

China staged its own naval, air and artillery exercises in late July, though it was not clear if the drills had been pre-planned or were in response to the US-South Korea exercises.

Last month, the South staged its largest-ever anti-submarine drill including live-fire training near the disputed Yellow Sea border, prompting a North Korean artillery barrage fired into the sea.

Also in August, the US and South Korea held annual 10-day joint war games on land that involved more than 80,000 troops.

2010/08/31

Delhi notes China's Indian Ocean 'interest'

NEW DELHI, August 31, 2010 (AFP) - India on Tuesday said China was demonstrating "more than normal interest" in the Indian Ocean as two Chinese warships made a rare visit to military-ruled Myanmar.

India is watchful of China's growing presence in the region, including its major investments in ports being built in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The Chinese ships docked in Yangon on Sunday afternoon and were set to launch a series of exchanges with Myanmar's navy, Xinhua news agency reported.

"India has come to realise that China has been showing more than the normal interest in the Indian Ocean affairs. So we are closely monitoring the Chinese intentions," Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna told parliament.

He did not make direct reference to the Chinese ships, but China is a key ally and trading partner of the junta that has ruled Myanmar since 1962.

China buys teak and gems from Myanmar and has shielded it from UN sanctions over rights abuses as a veto-wielding, permanent member of the Security Council.

India also looks to Myanmar for potential oil and gas imports and was criticised by rights monitors for hosting reclusive junta leader Than Shwe on a state visit to New Delhi in June.

Despite growing trade between China and India, ties between the emerging giants are wracked by mistrust.

Border disputes in Kashmir and the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a short war in 1962 and the presence of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in India all contribute to an atmosphere of suspicion.

Singapore population tops five million, 36 pct foreigners

SINGAPORE, August 31, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore's population crossed five million this year and more than a third of the total are foreigners, the statistics department said Tuesday.

The city-state's total population stood at 5.08 million people at the end of June, it said in a statement.

Of the number, 3.23 million are citizens, 540,000 are foreigners with permanent residency and 1.3 million are foreign professionals and workers along with their dependents, resulting in a 36 percent share for foreigners in the general population.

The population growth rate was 1.8 percent in 2010, reflecting a slowdown in the number of permanent residents and foreign workers being admitted into the country, the department said.
The number of permanent residents rose by 1.5 percent, down from at least six percent growth per year between 2005 and 2009, it said.

Growth in the number of non-residents, or those on professional employment passes and shorter-term work permits, slowed to 4.1 percent, off from peaks of 15 percent in 2007 and 19 percent in 2008, it added.

Because Singaporeans have not been producing enough babies, the government had for years rolled out the welcome mat for foreigners, whose numbers rose drastically during the economic boom from 2004 to 2007.

But after the 2008 global financial crisis, the government has taken a fresh look at its open-door policy following complaints from citizens that foreigners are competing for jobs, housing and medical care.

Singapore, which polls well in global surveys for quality of life, is also showing symptoms of urban stress, with rush-hour traffic gridlock, packed subway trains and recent cases of flash floods in some areas.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged the problems in a speech on Sunday and vowed to review immigration policies, cap new foreign hiring this year and enhance benefits accorded to citizens.

Philippines' Aquino says Malaysia to remain peace broker

MANILA, August 31, 2010 (AFP) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Tuesday that Malaysia would be kept as the main broker in peace talks with Muslim separatist rebels.

"We are supposed to be at the last stop, at the advanced stage of the negotiations. Changing the third party (broker) at this point might derail the attainment of a comprehensive agreement," Aquino told reporters.

The statement came after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, said he received information that the government may replace Malaysia with Indonesia as the host and broker of the talks.

Iqbal did not say where he received the information but said if that were to happen, the talks expected to resume next month could be in jeopardy.

"That is a welcome statement, it bolsters our confidence that the other side means business," Iqbal told AFP Tuesday, reacting to Aquino's comment.

"There is no reason to replace Malaysia as the facilitator. They have the institutional memory about the past negotiations."

The government has said the peace talks would resume after Ramadan, which ends in the Philippines on September 10.

The MILF has been waging a rebellion since 1978 for the creation of an independent Islamic state on the southern island of Mindanao, and more than 150,000 people have died in the fighting.

It signed a truce with Manila in 2003 to pave the way for peace talks, abandoning its ultimate goal and settle for the highest form of autonomy.

But then-president Gloria Arroyo failed to secure a peace deal with the MILF by the time she stepped down in June this year.

Negotiations with her government collapsed in 2008 when the MILF launched attacks across Mindanao after the Supreme Court said a proposed deal giving them control over large areas in the south was unconstitutional.

Nearly 400 people were killed in those clashes.

Both sides signed a fresh ceasefire last year, but the MILF opted to wait for Arroyo's successor for further negotiations.

Aquino, who won the presidency in May by a landslide, has said he is aiming for a peace deal with the rebel group during his six-year term.

Taiwan rejects Hong Kong group's bid for AIG unit

TAIPEI, August 31, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwanese authorities on Tuesday rejected a Hong Kong consortium's bid to buy ailing US insurance giant American International Group's Taiwan unit Nan Shan Life.

The application by Hong Kong-based China Strategic Holdings and Primus Financial Holdings "has failed to get the approval of the responsible authorities," the Investment Commission said in a statement.

The Hong Kong consortium agreed to acquire Nan Shan Life from AIG for 2.15 billion US dollars in October, but the deal has been in limbo since November when China Strategic announced a plan to sell a 30 percent stake in Nan Shan to Taipei-based Chinatrust Financial Holding Co.

Rumours also surfaced late last year that Chinese capital was involved in the deal -- claims that the consortium has repeatedly denied.

Taiwan has partially lifted a decade-old ban on Chinese investment amid improving ties after President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 on a China-friendly platform.

However, the government still imposes various restrictions in key sectors such as finance, flat-panel technology and telecommunications as it seeks to keep control of its economy.

Taiwan to deploy cruise missiles: lawmaker

TAIPEI, August 31, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan plans to deploy its own cruise missiles by the end of this year, a lawmaker and military pundit said Tuesday, reflecting continued tension with China despite warming ties.

Taiwan began mass producing the Hsiungfeng 2E cruise missiles after it acquired "key components" needed to manufacture the missiles, and will start deploying them this year, lawmaker Lin Yu-fang told AFP.

Lin, a member of the ruling Kuomintang party, declined to specify the range of the missiles or the number to be put into service.

President Ma Ying-jeou gave an order in 2008 for the production of 300 Hsiungfeng 2E cruise missiles, according to the Taipei-based China Times.

The paper said Hsiungfeng 2E, which was developed by the military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, has a range of around 800 kilometres (500 miles).

The institute has spent 2.2 billion Taiwan dollars (68 million US) each year since 2000 on developing the missiles, whose name means Brave Wind, and managed to expand its range from 600 to 800 kilometres, it said.

The missile could be launched on land or at sea, the paper said, adding that it would be capable of hitting airports and missile bases in southeast China, as well as cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.

China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the end of a civil war in 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

The Pentagon said in an annual report to Congress earlier this month that China's military build-up against Taiwan has "continued unabated" despite improving political relations.

China has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan should the island declare formal independence.
However, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased since Ma took office on a Beijing-friendly platform.

Google, AP reach content licensing agreement

WASHINGTON, August 30, 2010 (AFP) - Google and the Associated Press announced on Monday they have reached a licensing agreement that will allow the search giant to continue hosting content from the US news agency.

The deal, terms of which were not disclosed, was concluded after what the AP described in a story as "months of sometimes thorny negotiations." It replaces an agreement that expired in January.

The agreement allows Google to display AP content on such properties as Google News, the search giant's popular news aggregator.

The Wall Street Journal, citing "people familiar with the matter," said the agreement will allow Google News to host AP articles for "at least two more years" and for Google to pay the AP "in the seven figures annually."

The newspaper said the AP had backed off certain demands including an attempt to have more of a say in how prominently AP content is featured in search results.

The AP, in a statement, said that under the agreement, the California-based Internet company and New York-based news agency will "work together in a number of new areas, such as ways to improve discovery and distribution of news."

"We look forward to future collaborations, including on ways Google and AP can work together to create a better user experience and new revenue opportunities," Google senior business product manager Josh Cohen said.

Agence France-Presse and a number of other international news agencies also have licensing agreements with Google.

Google first entered into a licensing deal with AP in 2006.

With the Google-AP negotiations at an impasse, Google in December stopped posting new AP content on Google News. AP content reappeared in February after the original agreement was extended.

2010/08/30

Chinese warships dock in Myanmar: state media

YANGON, August 30, 2010 (AFP) - Two Chinese warships have made a rare visit to military-ruled Myanmar to spend several days promoting ties between the allied countries' armed forces, Chinese state media said Monday.

The ships from the People's Liberation Army Navy docked at Yangon's Thilawa port on Sunday afternoon and will launch a series of exchanges with Myanmar's navy, Xinhua news agency reported.

"The five-day mission is aimed at promoting friendly relationships between the two armed forces of the two countries and exchange between the two navies," the report said.

A Chinese defence ministry official confirmed the ships' arrival to AFP.

The warships, which Xinhua said were welcomed with a "grand ceremony", have arrived as Myanmar prepares for its first election in twenty years on November 7, which has been widely criticised by activists and the West as a sham.

While numerous Western nations direct sanctions at Myanmar, which has been military ruled since 1962, China is the junta's key ally, trading partner and an eager investor in the isolated state's sizeable natural resources.

In November China's top oil producer began construction of a pipeline across Myanmar.

The Asian economic powerhouse has long helped keep Myanmar afloat through trade ties, arms sales, and by shielding it from UN sanctions over rights abuses as a veto-wielding, permanent member of the Security Council.

In return, China is assured of a stable neighbour and access to raw materials from Myanmar, such as teak and gems.

Ties between the two countries frayed last year when fighting between Myanmar's isolated junta and rebel ethnic armies in the northeast drove tens of thousands of refugees into China, which issued a rare admonishment to Myanmar.

The issue of border stability was discussed when Wen Jiabao visited Myanmar in June -- the first Chinese premier to do so in 16 years.

He met reclusive junta chief Than Shwe and the two sides signed a series of agreements on trade, finance, energy, science and technology.

China state giants far outstrip private firms: report

BEIJING, August 30, 2010 (AFP) - Two of China's major state-run companies, China Mobile and PetroChina, saw their net profits outstrip those of the nation's top 500 private firms put together in 2009, a report said Monday.

The figures highlight how state-run enterprises have been prioritised and favoured under communist rule, often to the detriment of the private sector, during 30 years of booming economic growth in China.

According to the China Business News, net profits at the two firms reached more than 218 billion yuan (32 billion dollars) last year, with China Mobile raking in over 115 billion yuan and PetroChina taking in 103.3 billion yuan.

In comparison, China's top 500 private companies, listed according to their revenue, accumulated 217.95 billion yuan in net profits in 2009, the report said.

China's most profitable private firm in 2009 was the mineral water and soft drinks manufacturer Wahaha, with profits amounting to 8.78 billion yuan, it added.

The nation's biggest private enterprise in terms of revenue was steel manufacturer Jiangsu Shagang, followed by household electronics retailer Suning and computer-maker Lenovo, it said.

To qualify as one of China's top 500 private companies in 2009, firms had to have revenues amounting to at least 3.66 billion yuan, up from 2.97 billion in 2008. More than 300 of these firms operated in the industrial sector, it added.

China should "nurture private multinational firms that have relatively strong international competitiveness as soon as possible," the report quoted Huang Mengfu, head of the federation of commerce and industry, as saying.

The report was based on a survey of more than 3,600 private Chinese companies with revenues in 2009 surpassing 300 million yuan.

US concerned about Taiwan ex-generals' China visits: report

TAIPEI, August 30, 2010 (AFP) - Closer contacts between retired Taiwanese generals and the Chinese authorities have sparked concerns in Washington, the island's major arms supplier, media and an official said Monday.

The former generals started visiting China years ago, but with Taiwan's mainland ties improving rapidly since 2008, the trips have become so frequent that they have drawn US attention, the Taipei-based China Times said.

"The United States has voiced its concerns to (Taiwan's de facto ambassador) Jason Yuan and voiced the hope that Taiwan can come up with an explanation," the paper said, without naming the source.

It said Washington was especially concerned if such contacts may endanger long-standing military cooperation projects with Taiwan.

Washington is also wondering if the visits mark the beginning of discussion about military exchanges and the establishment of confidence-building measures between the two former cross-Strait rivals, it said.

"It would be understandable if the United States voices such concerns, given the fast improving ties between Taipei and Beijing," Chen Wen-yi, deputy chief of the foreign ministry's North American Affairs Department, told AFP.

But he said the concerns were unnecessary as the visits were not authorised by the government.
Beijing still regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, although the island has ruled itself since the end of a civil war in 1949.

Despite the underlying tension, relations have improved markedly since 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang party became president, pledging to boost trade links and allowing in more Chinese tourists.

Putin opens Russian section of Siberian-Pacific oil pipeline

Putin opens Russian section of Siberian-Pacific oil pipeline

MOSCOW, August 29, 2010 (AFP) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Sunday opened the Russian section of a long-awaited oil pipeline that will carry Russian crude to China in a bid to diversify its oil exports away from Europe.

"The Russian part of the project is completed," Putin said at an opening ceremony in Skovorodino in the Far Eastern Amur region in comments published on his official web site.

The branch pipeline will ultimately transport crude oil from Siberia to refineries in the northeastern Chinese city of Daqing.

"For us this is an important project because we are beginning to diversify the supply of our energy resources," Putin said at the ceremony, attended by the head of China's National Energy Administration, Zhang Guobao.

"Up to now, the main supplies have been delivered to our European partners. And still today our European partners get around 120-130 million tonnes of Russian oil."

The pipeline will initially carry 30 million tonnes of oil a year to the energy-hungry Asia-Pacific region and will later build up to 50 million tonnes, Putin said.

"This is already noticeable competition with the European route," Putin said.

The Chinese side still needs to build 930 kilometres on its territory to link up the pipeline, he said, but added that Russia is "absolutely sure that Russian oil will run to China this year."

Last year, the Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft completed the construction of the first 2,694-kilometre (1,600-mile) section of the oil pipeline, which originates in Taishet in eastern Siberia.

Transneft in October 2008 signed an agreement with the Chinese oil group CNPC on the construction of a 67-kilometre branch line to China

2010/08/29

Bangladesh to send 45,000 maids to Singapore

DHAKA, August 29, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore will recruit 45,000 Bangladeshi domestic workers in a boost for the impoverished country's labour export sector after jobs dried up in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, an official said Sunday.

Singaporean recruiting firms agreed on the number following talks in Dhaka last week, director of the government's Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) Nurul Islam told AFP.

"They want some 45,000 maids in a year. We shall train the maids and start sending them to Singapore by the end of this year," Islam said.

"It's a very good news for us. It comes as our traditional markets such as the Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia have yet to ride out the impact of the global recession."

The global downturn affected jobs for Bangladeshi workers in the construction and manufacturing sectors in the Persian Gulf.

According to the BMET, Bangladesh sent 202,000 workers abroad in the first half of 2010 -- the lowest in four years.

Malaysia, hit hard by the recession, has accepted no new Bangladeshi workers for more than a year.

Saudi Arabia, which employs more than two million Bangladeshis, signed up only 2,200 in the first quarter of 2010. For the same period in 2008, it employed 48,000.

Hong Kong stages march over Manila hostage tragedy

HONG KONG, August 29, 2010 (AFP) - Thousands of people joined a rally in Hong Kong on Sunday to demand justice for victims of the Manila hostage bloodbath, as the city's Filipino community staged its own memorials for the dead.

Demonstrators voiced their anger over the Philippine government's handling of the siege in the heart of Manila on Monday, which left eight Hong Kong tourists dead amid widespread complaints of police bungling.

"It's too late for the governments to do anything, but Hong Kong people hope that, at the very least, the Philippine authorities could tell us the truth," Daisy Kwong, a telecoms firm project manager, told AFP.

"I cried for hours after watching the tragedy played out live on TV," she said.

The sea of demonstrators observed three minutes of silence as they gathered in a Hong Kong park, many wearing yellow ribbons and carrying white flowers, the traditional Chinese colour of mourning.

The Hong Kong political parties organising the rally, the latest in a series of events marking Monday's tragedy, said it could draw as many as 50,000 people.

"I am furious," 56-year-old Law Wai-hing said. "I don't think we will ever be told the truth when the (Philippine) president (Benigno Aquino) is as appalling as he is.

"I hope the Chinese government and the United Nations can exert pressure on the Philippine government."

Members of the city's 200,000-strong Filipino community, the vast majority working as low-paid domestic helpers, have voiced fears of retribution.

Rally organisers asked demonstrators not to carry racially charged placards or chant discriminatory slogans.

Filipino groups are staging their own events on Sunday in remembrance of the victims, including a candlelight vigil.

Philippine vice consul Val Roque said a text message was sent to members of the community asking them to "set aside what they are doing" and attend memorial masses on Sunday.

"Being mostly Catholic, it was the best way for us to express our solidarity with the people of Hong Kong," Roque told AFP.

He downplayed fears about possible reprisals on Filipinos, saying there had been no confirmed reports of harassment or physical abuse.

"We trust our friends in Hong Kong would not do anything untoward against Filipinos here... But we understand the anger must be released. We hope as the days go by that anger will dissipate."

A Facebook site to remember the victims has attracted thousands of signatures, and a flood of criticism directed at the Philippine government.

Disgraced ex-policeman Rolando Mendoza, armed with an assault rifle, hijacked a busload of Hong Kong tourists on Monday in an apparent bid to win his old job back and be cleared of extortion charges.

Eight tourists and the gunman were killed in the final stages of the 12-hour ordeal, when ill-equipped police launched an assault on the bus in a drama that unfolded live on television screens around the world.

Philippine police said Sunday they were certain that the Hong Kong tourists were killed by Mendoza, rather than by police bullets during the ill-fated rescue operation.

Hong Kong undersecretary for security Lai Tung-kwok said on Saturday autopsies had been carried out on all eight victims, which may lead to an official inquiry.

Five senior Manila policemen who took part in the assault have been suspended and their commanding officer has also taken leave.

Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post newspaper reported that a letter containing an offer by the Philippine police to suspend Mendoza's dismissal and try to end the hostage crisis had arrived at the scene too late.

But this claim was dismissed by country's national police spokesman.