Taiwan ruling party to pay Chinese spies: report

TAIPEI, March 12, 2011 (AFP) - A Taiwan court has ordered the island's ruling party to pay $2.8 million compensation to 17 Chinese nationals arrested in China while spying for the party over 20 years ago, a report said Saturday.

The agents, based in Beijing and Shanghai, were recruited by the Kuomintang (KMT) party to spy on China in the 1980s and were arrested after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, said the Taipei-based China Times.

They were later sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 18 years, the paper said.

A former agent, identified only by his surname Tang, was quoted by the paper as saying that he was recruited by the KMT while he was an engineer stationed in Iraq.

Tang, who filed the lawsuit in the Taipei district court on behalf of the group, said the KMT promised "hefty compensation" in the event of their arrests but had abandoned them after they were caught, the report said.

The court rejected the KMT's arguments that the agents were working for the Taiwan government and therefore the compensation should come from state coffers, it said.

Court officials were not immediately available for comment.

Taiwan and China have spied on each other since they split in 1949 when the nationalist KMT lost a civil war on the mainland to the communists and fled to Taiwan to set up a separate government.

But Beijing still regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, if necessary by force.

Last month, a Taiwanese army major general was arrested on charges of spying for China, while a retired local agent alleged that at least 10 Chinese moles are believed to have infiltrated Taiwan's security units.

Boats 'crushed' by tsunami wave on California coast

LOS ANGELES, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - At least 35 boats were crushed in the harbor of a northern Californian community hit by waves from the Japanese tsunami -- and an official said worse was feared.

Some 7,000 people were evacuated from the harbor area in Crescent City, 350 miles north of San Francisco, said emergency services manager Cindy Henderson.

"We have at least 35 boats that have been crushed. We have boats on top of other boats," she told AFP, adding that their last surge had registered 8.1 feet (2.5 meters) -- although it had not yet breached the sides of the harbor.

"Thankfully we're almost at low tide. We're expected to get even higher," she said, adding that, if the water does spill out of the harbor, "those boats will become battering rams once it surges."

"We are concerned, but it is evacuated. If it surges it'll go into a parking lot and up to the highway," she added.

Crescent City, a tourist town located near the US state of Oregon, is in Del Norte county, one of five California counties from which people in low-lying areas were ordered to evacuate ahead of the tsunami, triggered by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.

A tsunami in 2006 caused $25 million in damage to Crescent City, Henderson said.
"We have one of those harbors that sucks it in," she said.

Other counties under evacuation orders were Humboldt, San Mateo, San Luis and Mendocino, according to California's emergency management agency.

Leak could occur at Japan nuclear plant: minister

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A small radiation leak could occur at Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan's trade minister said, after officials said a pressure build-up had occurred in one of the reactors after a huge earthquake.

Banri Kaieda said that authorities were nearing a decision to release radioactive steam from a troubled nuclear reactor in a bid to ease a pressure build-up.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the Fukushima No. 1 plant, told AFP: "Pressure has risen in the container of the reactor and we are trying to deal with it".

The Japanese government on Friday told thousands of residents living within a three-kilometre (two-mile) radius of the plant to evacuate after its cooling system failed following a huge 8.9 magnitude quake, the biggest in Japan's history.

US warns of quake-related Internet scams

WASHINGTON, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - US computer security authorities warned on Friday that online scammers may seek to exploit the earthquake in Japan.

The US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) told computer users to be wary of "potential email scams, fake antivirus and phishing attacks regarding the Japan earthquake and the tsunami disasters."

"Email scams may contain links or attachments which may direct users to phishing or malware-laden websites," US-CERT said in a statement.

"Fake antivirus attacks may come in the form of pop-ups which flash security warnings and ask the user for credit card information," it said.

"Phishing emails and websites requesting donations for bogus charitable organizations commonly appear after these types of natural disasters," US-CERT added.

Phishing refers to attempts to steal user names, passwords and other personal information from unsuspecting victims, mostly through email or instant messages.

The massive, 8.9-magnitude quake left hundreds dead in Japan and unleashed a tsunami in the Pacific.

Japan disaster death toll likely to pass 1,000: Kyodo

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - More than 1,000 people probably died in the massive quake and tsunami disaster that devastated large parts of northern Japan's Pacific coast, Kyodo News agency said early Saturday.

The news agency report came as grim updates indicating appalling loss of life kept emerging from along the hard-hit east coast of northern Honshu island, where the monster wave destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

The National Police Agency said 137 people were confirmed dead and 531 were missing -- while police in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, separately said 200 to 300 bodies had been found on the shore.

Fears rose for greater losses as reports came in of a ship with 100 people swept away, two trains missing, and a dam break flooding more homes.

The defence ministry said about 1,800 homes in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, were destroyed, while in Sendai authorities said 1,200 houses were toppled by the tsunami.

The small town of Ofunato further north reported 300 house collapsed or swept away.

More than 80 fires blazed in and around Tokyo and in the Iwate, Miyagi, Akita and Fukushima prefectures, Kyodo reported, quoting Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

The monster quake was the strongest recorded in the seismically unstable archipelago, located on the "Pacific Rim of Fire".

Japan quake warning system sounded early alarm

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Millions of Japanese learnt about Friday's massive earthquake about one minute before they could feel its violent shockwaves, thanks to an early-warning system renowned to be the world's best.

The sophisticated system is connected to network of about 1,000 seismometers around the country which detect and analyse primary waves of quakes and issue warnings if the tremors are predicted to be powerful.

Primary waves travel faster than secondary waves, which are much more destructive -- meaning that alarms about quakes can arrive moments before the earth starts to shake, just enough time to take cover.

"The system functioned well because warnings were seen on television across the country," Hirohito Naito, a seismic specialist at the Japan Meteorological Agency, told AFP.

The warnings were also issued through radio, television and via satellite data transmission systems -- as well as on mobile phone and email services for special subscribers.

In Tokyo, an early warning was flashed by public broadcaster NHK and private networks with loud chimes, interrupting normal broadcasting.

The first big shock was felt about a minute later in the capital area, swaying high-rise buildings and sending millions fleeing outside.

The state-run agency fully implemented the system in late 2007 and had issued warnings 17 times up until Thursday.

Japan accounts for around 20 percent of the world's most powerful earthquakes as it sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire".

Taiwan and Mexico are also known to have earthquake early-warning systems.

"Other countries, like Mexico, have put such systems to practical use," Naito said. "But the system operated by the Japan Meteorological Agency is the only one which covers the whole area of a country."

Dam breaks in northeast Japan, washes away homes: Kyodo

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A dam in Japan's northeast Fukushima prefecture broke and homes were washed away, Kyodo news reported Saturday, after the biggest earthquake in the nation's history wreaked death and havoc.

The 8.9-magnitude quake -- the seventh biggest ever recorded -- generated a monster wall of water that pulverised the northeastern city of Sendai, where police reportedly said that 200-300 bodies had been found on the coast.

At least 310 people were killed in the massive earthquake and following tsunamis, police and press reports said.

The government declared an atomic power emergency as officials rushed to secure key nuclear facilities in the affected regions.

Hours after the quake struck with devastating force, TV images showed huge orange balls of flame rolling up into the night sky as fires raged around a petrochemical complex in Sendai.

A massive fire also engulfed an oil refinery in Iichihara near Tokyo.

Deadly Japan earthquake risks fiscal crisis: study

LONDON, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - The deadly earthquake in Japan will increase the chances of a fiscal crisis in the world's third largest economy, British consultancy Capital Economics warned in a report published here on Friday.

"It may be several days before the costs of the disaster are clearer. The greater the social and economic damage, the larger the threat to the government's ability and willingness to ward off a fiscal crisis," read the study, written by economists Julian Jessop and David Rea.

At least 300 people were killed in the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan earlier on Friday, unleashing huge tsunamis along its Pacific coast, according to police and press reports.

"The consequences of the major earthquake and tsunami... are not yet clear and the impact on local people is of course foremost in everyone's minds," added Capital Economics.

"But the financial markets also need to consider the economic costs and the implications of the disaster for the public finances. These could be considerable."

Japan is burdened by the industrialised world's biggest debt, which runs close to 200 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Capital Economics stressed that the earthquake was not of the same impact as the devastating quake which ravaged the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995.

"This disaster is probably not the 'big one' that seismologists have long been fearing.
"Mercifully, the scale appears to be much less than that of the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that hit Kobe on 17th January 1995.

"The Kobe earthquake left 6,434 dead and about 300,000 homeless, and caused damage estimated at 10 trillion yen ($100 billion at the exchange rates of the time)."

However, the earthquake could not have been timed much worse for Japan, according to Capital Economics.

The Japanese economy shrank by 1.3 percent in the three months to December, compared to a year earlier, official data had showed on Thursday. That was worse than the initial estimate of 1.1 percent.

"A large part of the reconstruction costs will probably have to be met by local authorities and ultimately by central government, which is already struggling to bring public debt under control," added the consultancy.

"Overall, it will be that much harder to deliver a credible long-term fiscal plan in the summer if the economy is stuck in recession, the public finances are in an even worse state, and many people are still suffering the after-effects of this disaster.

"At the very least, the scope for fiscal stimulus to mitigate the economic damage is much less than it was in 1995."

World rallies to aid Japan after massive quake

GENEVA, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Nations around the world offered support and sympathy Friday to Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that shattered the northeast of the country and cost hundreds of lives.

The United Nations said that search and rescue teams from more than 45 countries were ready to head to the country if it needs help.

"More than 68 teams from more than 45 countries are on standby," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told AFP.

The search and rescue teams mobilised under a UN disaster response network are monitoring the situation and ready to help should Japan request aid, she explained.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said the world body will "do anything and everything" to help the country.The UN would provide humanitarian assistance and send risk reduction teams to the stricken areas after the 8.9 magnitude quake which sent tsunamis across the Pacific.

"Japan is one of the most generous and strongest (UN) benefactors, coming to the assistance of those in need the world over," he said.

In Washington US President Barack Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to offer help, an official said.

"(First Lady) Michelle (Obama) and I send our deepest condolences to the people of Japan, particularly those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake and tsunamis," Obama said in a statement.

Although relations between Beijing and Tokyo have been strained in recent months, Chen Jianmin, head of the China Earthquake Administration, said authorities had already put relief personnel, equipment and medicine in place, "ready to depart for Japan at any time".

Premier Wen Jiabao, whose country is no stranger to major quakes, expressed his "deep sympathy" to the Japanese government and people, and offered any "necessary help" to its neighbour, the foreign ministry said.

The shock was felt as far away as Beijing, some 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) distant.

The European Union said it would "mobilise all appropriate assistance".    

Its executive arm, the European Commission, has funds to deal with emergencies and can also mobilise equipment and experts in natural disasters.

European leaders arriving at an emergency summit on the crisis in Libya said their first thoughts were with Japan.

"The first thing is to offer sympathy and condolences to the Japanese people," British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

"We have had a terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he "wanted to express our solidarity with the Japanese people.

"I want to tell all the Japanese people that France stands with you in this terrible catastrophe... We will send rescue teams, planes, whatever is needed to help."

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan said his country was ready to "assist Japan in any way at this difficult time", adding that its embassy was "urgently" contacting authorities to see if any nationals had been affected.

South Korea also expressed its sympathy and pledged "every possible support" to help neighbour Japan recover, adding that around 40 rescue workers had been put on standby to head to the quake-hit nation.

In South Asia, India conveyed sympathies and condolences to victims as well as offering assistance.

"We are saddened by the loss of life and extensive damage to property and infrastructure," the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.

In Sri Lanka, badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, President Mahinda Rajapakse said Japan was a "very close and dear friend" and its people possessed "incredible resilience and courage" to overcome destruction.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also said his country was ready to help.

US Navy ship ordered out of port as tsunami looms

LOS ANGELES, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A US Navy ship docked south of Los Angeles was ordered out into open water on Friday, as a precautionary measure due to a tsunami racing across the Pacific Ocean, a spokesman said.

The USS Dubuque was told to steam out of Seal Beach to safer waters in the Pacific ahead of the expected arrival of waves from the tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake near Japan, said Seal Beach police spokesman Steve Bowles.

There was no immediate announcement about movement of US Navy vessels docked further south down the California coast in San Diego, home to the Pacific Fleet.

The first waves from the tsunami were expected to hit California's coast from 8:30 am (1630 GMT), and authorities have urged residents to leave beaches and coastal areas and warned that sea currents could become hazardous.

The first waves would not necessarily be the biggest, experts say.

"Current intelligence indicates a 3-foot (one-meter) surge may impact the coastline of Los Angeles County," said county fire captain Sam Padilla, adding that heightened waves could continue for 10-12 hours.

At least 337 dead in Japan quake: AFP tally

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - At least 337 people were killed in the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on Friday, unleashing huge tsunamis along its Pacific coast, police and press reports said.

The National Police Agency said 137 people had been confirmed dead and 531 missing, with 627 others injured in the tremor.

"The death toll has yet to include the 200-300 dead bodies which were (reportedly) found on the beach of Sendai," a spokesman for the agency said.

Around 200 to 300 bodies were found in a part of Japan's quake and tsunami hit Pacific coast town of Sendai, according to media reports.

Kyodo News and Jiji Press agency said the bodies were reported found in Sendai's Wakabayashi ward following the powerful seabed earthquake that sent a massive tsunami slamming into the coast.

Of the dead, 57 were found in Iwate prefecture, near the epicentre, the agency said. Three were killed in Tokyo.


Massive quake unleashes tsunami on Japan

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan Friday, unleashing a 10-metre high tsunami that tossed ships inland and sparked fears that destructive waves could hit across the Pacific Ocean.

The devastating 8.9-magnitude quake left many people injured in coastal areas of the main Honshu island and Tokyo, police said, while TV footage showed widespread flooding in the area. Nineteen people were reported dead.

A monster 10-metre (33 feet) wall of water was reported in Sendai city in northeastern Miyagi prefecture, media said after a four-metre wave hit the coast earlier. The government said the quake had caused "tremendous damage".

Helicopter footage showed massive inundation in northern coastal towns, where floods of black water sent shipping containers, cars and debris crashing through streets. An oil refinery was ablaze near Tokyo.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a widespread warning for territories as far away as South America, New Zealand and Hawaii, where evacuations were ordered.

"An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours," the centre said in a statement.

Swells of up to one metre were reported hitting Russia's far east, with bigger waves expected later.

Television footage showed a wide, muddy stream moving rapidly across a residential area near the Natori River in Sendai, levelling all in its path.

The tsunami also reached Sendai airport, submerging the runway while a process known as liquefaction, caused by the intense shaking of the tremor, turned parts of the ground to liquid.

Public broadcaster NHK said several dozen houses had been washed away in Miyagi Prefecture.

In the capital, where millions evacuated strongly swaying buildings, multiple injuries were reported when the roof of a hall collapsed during a graduation ceremony, police said.

Plumes of smoke rose from at least 10 locations in the city, where four million homes suffered power outages.

The first quake struck just under 400 kilometres (250 miles) northeast of Tokyo, the US Geological Survey said. It was followed by more than a dozen aftershocks, one as strong as 7.1.

The quake was the largest ever in Japan, the fifth strongest tremor worldwide since 1900 and the seventh strongest in history, according to the US Geological Survey and Japanese seismologists.

"We were shaken so strongly for a while that we needed to hold on to something in order not to fall," said an official at the local government of the hardest-hit city of Kurihara in Miyagi prefecture.

"We couldn't escape the building immediately because the tremors continued... City officials are now outside, collecting information on damage," she told AFP by telephone.

A major blackout occurred across a wide area of northeastern Japan.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan quickly assembled his cabinet after the quake hit, and the government dispatched naval vessels from near Tokyo to Miyagi.

The quake affected the nation's key transportation systems, including Narita airport, which shut its runways for safety checks.

The quake, which hit at 14:46 pm (0546 GMT) and lasted about two minutes, rattled buildings in greater Tokyo, the world's largest urban area and home to some 30 million people.

In Tokyo, where the subway system stopped, sirens wailed and people streamed out of buildings. The government moved to reassure people that there had been no radiation leak from the country's network of nuclear power plants.

Japan sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", which is dotted with volcanoes, and Tokyo is situated in one of its most dangerous areas.

The quake sent the Nikkei share index plunging at the close while the yen fell sharply against the US dollar before recovering.

The mega-city of Tokyo sits on the intersection of three continental plates -- the Eurasian, Pacific and Philippine Sea plates -- which are slowly grinding against each other, building up enormous seismic pressure.

The government's Earthquake Research Committee has warned of a 70 percent chance that a great, magnitude-eight quake will strike within the next 30 years in the Kanto plains, home to Tokyo's vast urban sprawl.

The last time a "Big One" hit Tokyo was in 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake claimed more than 140,000 lives, many of them in fires. In 1855, the Ansei Edo quake also devastated the city.

In 1995 Kobe earthquake killed more than 6,400 people.

More than 220,000 people were killed when a 9.1-magnitude quake hit off Indonesia in 2004, unleashing a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean as far away as Africa.

Small quakes are felt every day somewhere in Japan and people take part in regular drills at schools and workplaces to prepare for a calamity.

Nuclear power plants and bullet trains are designed to automatically shut down when the earth rumbles and many buildings have been quake-proofed with steel and ferro-concrete at great cost in recent decades.

Japan quake seventh most powerful ever: USGS

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - The monster 8.9-magnitude earthquake which hit Japan on Friday was the country's biggest ever and the seventh largest on record, according to US Geological Survey data.
Here are the largest magnitude earthquakes in history, according to the USGS website:

-- 9.5, Chile, May 5, 1960. A quake off the coast of southern Chile killed more than 1,600 people and left 2,000,000 homeless.

-- 9.2, Alaska, United States, March 27, 1964. A quake and tsunami killed 128 people and caused severe damage to the state's largest city Anchorage.

-- 9.1, Indonesia, December 26, 2004. An undersea quake caused a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean, ultimately killing more than 220,000 people.

-- 9.0, Russia, November 4, 1952. A quake off the coast of the remote Kamchatka peninsula in Russia's far east caused Pacific-wide tsunamis.

-- 9.0, Peru, August 13, 1868. The port of Arica, which is now part of Chile, was hit by a quake felt up to 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) away.

-- 9.0, North America, January 26, 1700. A quake affecting 1,000 kilometres of coastline set off a tsunami that crossed the Pacific Ocean and caused damage to coastal villages in Japan.

-- 8.9, Japan, March 11, 2011. An undersea quake off northeast Japan unleashed a 10-metre-high tsunami which left devastation in its wake.

-- 8.8, Chilean coast, February 27, 2010. An offshore quake and tsunami killed more than 500 people, most in the coastal area of Maule, 400 kilometres (250 miles) south-west of the capital Santiago.

-- 8.8, Ecuador, January 31, 1906. A quake struck off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia and was felt as far away as San Francisco.

-- 8.7, Alaska, February 4, 1965. A quake in the remote Rat Islands generated a tsunami reported to be 10 metres high.

-- 8.7, Portugal, November 1, 1755. The capital Lisbon was struck by a quake while many residents were in church. A quarter of the city's population perished.

-- 8.7, Chile, July 8, 1730. A quake hit the city of Valparaiso, 120 kilometres northwest of the capital Santiago, causing a tsunami which hit more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline.

US videogame industry scores February uptick

SAN FRANCISCO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Industry tracker NPD Group on Thursday reported that US videogame sales rose in February as people snatched up consoles and hot accessories such as Kinect for Xbox 360.

Total sales of videogame hardware and software for the month tallied $1.36 billion, three percent more than the revenue seen in February of last year, according to NPD.

The performance was even better when new revenue streams from titles downloaded online, games played at social networks, and applications for play on mobile gadgets are included, said NPD analyst Anita Frazier.

"While our monthly sales releases cover revenues generated by new physical retail sales, sales of content outside of new physical retail represent other methods of monetization for the industry," Frazier said.

"Among these, full game and add-on content digital downloads, social network gaming, and consumer purchases of mobile apps are some of the areas where we've seen the greatest percentage growth over last year."

Sales of videogame software sold as packaged goods in stores slipped five percent to $601.4 million as players shift spending to Internet downloads, online play and mobile gaming.

Microsoft Xbox 360 was the top selling console during the month, with Kinect gesture-sensing controllers for the devices continuing to be hot items.

Sales of Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 consoles were up in comparisons with the previous month as well as February of last year, according to Frazier.

While sales of game handsets dropped in the month, NPD predicted a rebound when Nintendo's 3DS hits the US on March 27.

"Call of Duty: Black Ops" by Activision Blizzard was the best selling title for the month, followed by Capcom's "Marvel vs Capcom: Fate of Two Worlds" and Ubisoft's "Just Dance 2" for the Wii.

"Call of Duty: Black Ops" has become the best selling videogame in history since its launch in November, according to Frazier.

China's inflation hits 4.9% in Feb - Wrap

BEIJING, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - China said Friday prices rose 4.9 percent year-on-year in February, well above the official target, despite government efforts to rein in inflation.

Rising costs of food, housing and other essentials have become a major source of anxiety for consumers and stability-obsessed policymakers, who are ever fearful that prolonged inflation could spark social unrest.

The consumer price index, the key gauge of inflation in the world's second-largest economy, was unchanged from January when it rose 4.9 percent -- again surpassing the government's annual inflation target of four percent.

Analysts had expected inflation to rise 4.8 percent due to lower vegetable prices and much-needed snowfalls across drought-stricken northern China, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

The National Bureau of Statistics last month tweaked the key inflation gauge by reducing the weighting of food prices while increasing the weight for rents and other housing costs.

The country's producer price index, which measures the cost of products at the factory gate, rose 7.2 percent year-on-year in February compared with a rise of 6.6 percent in January, as global commodity prices soared.

Last week, Premier Wen Jiabao said in his speech to open the annual session of parliament that reining in prices was the government's "top priority" in 2011, as the country strives for a more balanced eight percent growth rate.

"Recent prices have risen fairly quickly and inflation expectations have increased," Wen said in his "state of the nation" address.

"This problem concerns the people's well-being, bears on overall interests and affects social stability. We must therefore make it our top priority in macroeconomic control to keep overall price levels stable."

Output from the country's millions of factories and workshops expanded by 14.1 percent on-year in the first two months of 2011.

Urban fixed asset investment, a measure of government spending on infrastructure, rose 24.9 percent in the January-February period, as compared with a year ago.

Retail sales rose 15.8 percent in the two-month period.

YouTube growth sparks hiring binge

SAN FRANCISCO, March 10, 2011 (AFP) - Google-owned YouTube said Thursday it plans to increase its staff by nearly a third in what will be the online video-sharing star's biggest hiring year.

"2010 was a bang-up year," Jeff Ferguson of YouTube human resources team said in a blog post. "And in 2011, we plan to grow the number of people working at YouTube by more than 30 percent!"

Since being founded in February of 2005 by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, YouTube has become a global stage for sharing video.

An average of 35 hours worth of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute and two billion videos are watched daily at the website, according to Ferguson.

"It's been amazing to watch an idea become a platform that turned into a stage for hundreds of millions of people to express themselves," he said.

"We now have aspiring filmmakers and musicians building their careers on YouTube, activists opening our eyes to global issues and individuals telling their stories in ways that only video can capture."

YouTube also announced the launch of the first "YouTube Creator Institute" in conjunction with the University of California School of Cinematic Arts and Columbia College of Chicago.

Institute programs will combine online and on-campus components aimed at teaching aspiring filmmakers how to thrive with digital age tools.

Taiwan opposition leader launches presidential bid

TAIPEI, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan's opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen on Friday announced she intended to run in next year's presidential election, pledging to make the island "its own master".

Tsai, chairwoman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is tipped to challenge Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou who is widely expected to run for a second term.

"Young people don't understand why (the government) gives up the democracy and freedom we fought so hard for," said Tsai, whose party favours Taiwan's independence from China.

"I hear Taiwan's voice saying Taiwan wants to be its own master... I will shoulder the responsibility of the future to win Taiwan back."

Tsai, 54, became DPP chief in 2008 following its humiliating defeat in presidential polls and has since led the party to victory in several regional elections.

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

Ties between Taiwan and China were strained under the former DPP government but have improved markedly since Ma took office in 2008 promoting trade and tourism with the mainland.

10-metre tsunami slams into Japan's coast: media - Lead

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami slammed into the coast off the city of Sendai in northeast Japan on Friday after an 8.9-magnitude quake struck offshore, Japanese media reported.

TV footage showed cars and houses being swept along in the water. The runways at Sendai Airport were submerged, with dozens of people seen on the roof of the terminal building.

Kyodo news reported that a seven-metre tsunami had reached Fukushima prefecture.

Huge Japan quake kills three: reports

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Three people were reported killed after a huge earthquake of magnitude 8.9 rocked Japan and tsunamis up to 10 metres (33 feet) high slammed into the coast on Friday.

The dead included a 67-year-old man crushed by a wall and an elderly woman killed by a fallen roof, both in the wider Tokyo area.

Malaysia's Anwar faces bid to force DNA evidence

KUALA LUMPUR, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysian prosecutors Friday attempted to force opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to provide a DNA sample in his sodomy trial, as they tried to prove he had sexual contact with his accuser.

Anwar, who says he is the victim of a political conspiracy and has refused to give a sample, won a key victory earlier this week when DNA evidence obtained from his detention cell without his consent was ruled inadmissible.

On Friday, government prosecutor Yusof Zainal Abiden asked the High Court to review that decision, and also to compel him to hand over a sample.

"We are seeking the court to order Anwar to provide his DNA... we are all concerned with justice and finding out the truth," he said.

Yusof said that DNA tests would show whether there was a match with semen found in an internal examination on Anwar's former aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari, who said he was sodomised at an upmarket condominium.

Anwar accused the prosecution of acting "under political instructions" in its request which he said had "no precedent" in law.

"It is because they are so desperate and they want to send out the political message that, yes we have the evidence, we just need Anwar's DNA, which in my mind is absurd," he told reporters.

The prosecution and the defence will make submissions on the request to force Anwar to provide a DNA sample on Monday.

"This is a case of legal adventurism for political mileage," said defence counsel Sankara Nair. "There is no power or law in Malaysia that compels a person to give DNA."

There was another bombshell in court on Friday when Anwar's arresting police officer Jude Pereira said that after he took Anwar into custody in 2008, a statement was recorded from the prime minister's wife, Rosmah Mansor.

Saiful, 25, has said that he met with Najib before making a police report about the alleged sodomy -- a revelation that fuelled Anwar's allegations that the case is politically motivated.

Saiful has said he did not meet with Rosmah -- a high-profile and influential political spouse -- so the revelation that she made a statement will raise questions over whether she is involved with the case.

Prosecutor Yusof confirmed that Pereira had taken statements from both Najib and Rosmah, but refused to comment on what was said and why the statements were taken.

What is a tsunami?

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A once-exotic word that has now entered the everyday lexicon, a tsunami refers to a shock of water that spreads through the sea, usually after a sub-sea floor quake.

A section of seabed is thrust up or driven down by violent movement of the Earth's crust.

The rift displaces vast quantities of water that move as waves, able to cover enormous distances over open water, sometimes at the speed of a jet plane.

An 8.9-magnitude quake off Japan's northern coast on Friday generated a 10-metre (33 feet) tsunami that picked up ships and dashed them into coastal towns.

Buildings and vehicles were carried away as the huge wall of water swept inland.

The word "tsunami" comes from the Japanese words for "harbour" and "wave".

At their point of generation, tsunamis have a relatively small wave height, with peaks far apart.

As the waves approach the shore they are compressed by the shelving of the sea floor, reducing the distance between the peaks and vastly increasing the height.

To those on the shore, the first sign of something amiss can be the retreat of the sea, which is followed by the arrival of large waves.

"The sea was driven back, and its waters flowed away to such an extent that the deep seabed was laid bare and many kinds of sea creatures could be seen," wrote Roman historian Ammianus Marcellus, awed at a tsunami that struck the then-thriving port of Alexandria in 365 AD.

"Huge masses of water flowed back when least expected, and now overwhelmed and killed many thousands of people... Some great ships were hurled by the fury of the waves onto the rooftops, and others were thrown up to two miles (three kilometres) from the shore."
Several factors determine the height and destructiveness of a tsunami.

They include the size of the quake, the volume of displaced water, the topography of the sea floor as the waves race to the coast and whether there are natural obstacles that dampen the shock.

Destruction of protective mangroves and coral reefs and the building of homes or hotels on exposed beaches are fingered as leading causes of high death tolls from tsunamis.

Large quakes are the main drivers of tsunamis, but the phenomenon can also be sparked by other cataclysmic events, such as volcanic eruptions and even landslides.

In 1883, a volcano shattered the Pacific island of Krakatoa, causing a blast so loud that it could be heard 4,500 kilometres away, followed by a tsunami that killed some 30,000 people.

The tsunami of December 2004 in the Indian Ocean was caused by a monstrous 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

It released energy equivalent to 23,000 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). Some 220,000 people in 11 nations were killed, many of them thousands of kilometres from the epicentre.

The Pacific Ocean is particularly prone to earthquakes and therefore to tsunamis.

But research has found that, over the millennia, tsunamis have occurred in many parts of the world, including the Atlantic and Mediterranean. A global monitoring network, overseen by the UN, has been set in place to alert areas at risk.

Japan quake felt in China: residents

BEIJING, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - The powerful earthquake that struck Friday off Japan was felt as far away as Beijing but Chinese authorities said the country faced no threat of a "disastrous" tsunami.

Workers in some office towers in the Chinese capital, more than 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) from the quake epicentre, reported via chat sites that they had clearly felt the tremor.

However, no injuries or damage were immediately reported in China.

The earthquake unleashed a tsunami on Japan's eastern coast and sparked warnings across the Pacific.

However, China's National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre said there "would be no disastrous impact on China's coast" from tsunamis.

Beijing's seismological bureau said it had received reports from residents across the city who also claimed to have felt shaking from the quake.

The earthquake was not noticeable in AFP's Beijing bureau.

Private jet makers eye China's billionaires

HONG KONG, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - The "Phoenix Cabin" has all the usual amenities that a billionaire might want in a private jet: plush leather chairs, soft carpet, and a flat-screen TV to watch while criss-crossing the globe.

But with its red hues -- traditionally a lucky colour in China -- and centrepiece round table that doubles for playing mahjong, Airbus is setting its sights on the growing number of ultra-rich Chinese who can afford to shell out upwards of $65 million for their very own home and office in the sky.

"The round table with a Lazy Susan is the Chinese way of sharing and spending time together," Francois Chazelle, vice president of worldwide sales at Airbus Corporate Jets, told AFP at an air show that wrapped up in Hong Kong on Thursday.

"The first aircraft we sold into China had one and the customer immediately took to it."
Europe's Airbus says its private jet operation set a company record last year, delivering 15 planes worth $1.5 billion, with China standing out as the firm's fastest-growing market.

Driving that surge is China's red-hot economy which has produced about 875,000 millionaires and almost 200 billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List, the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes or Sunday Times rich lists.

Chinese customers accounted for about 25 percent of business jet sales at Airbus in 2010, with sales expected to close in on the dominant oil-rich Middle East market in "a couple of years," Chazelle said.

Rival Bombardier is forecasting the industry will make 600 business jet deliveries in China between 2010 and 2019, while US-based Gulfstream is also boosting its presence in mainland China and Hong Kong, a financial hub synonymous with ultra-rich tycoons and grandiose displays of wealth.

"The race is on -- there is a lot of activity right now in China," Chazelle said.

Boeing, a major player in the US market which was pounded during the global financial crisis, made all of its private jet sales last year to Asian clients, locking up deals in Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, said Jeff Dunn, the firm's Asia-Pacific sales director for business jets.

"But China is a great market for us too," he added.

"We see very steady growth in this region -- everybody is here. And I think it will stay that way. The numbers will continue to grow in Asia."

Smaller planes are popular in the US market, while bigger, long-range jets that can carry more passengers are a hit among Asia's elite, who tend to make "quick decisions and want quick delivery," Dunn said.

"Big, big and bigger is showing dominance and the interiors are very extravagant -- it's a cultural preference," he added.

"Because of long-range travel requirements from Asian customers, the cabin is very important, and so is connectivity," added David Dixon, Bombardier's regional vice president for business aircraft sales.

But almost all clients want a plane so they can do business in private, sleep in a full-size bed, or catch a shower as they race around the globe.

"It gives you a flying office," said Chazelle, who saw one customer log a remarkable 1,200 flying hours in a year, or about three hours daily.

"It was kind of a record. (Customers) want to be more efficient travelling the world," he added.

A dining area for 10 guests, "endless" hot water for bathing, casino tables, slot machines, a gym for sky-high workouts or karaoke machines to belt out your favourite tunes are all possible options for those with cash to burn.

"We've seen just about everything put in an airplane," Dunn said.

As Chinese companies spread out across the globe, private jet makers are also hoping to boost their all-important sales to corporations, along with governments that need a secure way to transport heads of state, observers said.

Restrictions on private aviation in China have been a key hurdle to tapping the market further since they make last-minute changes to a flight plan -- common among jet owners -- almost impossible, Dunn said.

But regulators appear set to loosen those restrictions, observers said.

"A lot of progress is already taking place," Chazelle said.

"Chinese regulators are being more and more welcoming to business aviation."

Major tsunami hits Japan after massive quake

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - A massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake shook Japan on Friday, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns.

Multiple injuries, but no immediate deaths, were reported from the Pacific coastal area of Miyagi on the main Honshu island, police said according to media, and TV footage showed widespread flooding in the area

The quake hit in the early afternoon, also strongly shaking buildings in greater Tokyo, the world's largest urban area with 30 million people.

At least six fires were reported in Tokyo, where the subway system stopped, sirens wailed and people streamed out of buildings.

The first quake struck about 382 kilometres (237 miles) northeast of Tokyo, the US Geological Survey said, revising the magnitude from an earlier 7.9.

Japan, is located on the "Pacific Ring of Fire" and dotted with volcanoes, and Tokyo is situated in one of its most dangerous areas.

A tsunami warning was issued for Japan, Taiwan, Russia and the Mariana Islands, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

"An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours," the centre said in a statement.

It also put the territories of Guam, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Micronesia and Hawaii under a lower tsunami watch.

The yen fell to 83.30 against the dollar from 82.81 before the quake struck.

The mega-city of Tokyo sits on the intersection of three continental plates -- the Eurasian, Pacific and Philippine Sea plates -- which are slowly grinding against each other, building up enormous seismic pressure.

The government's Earthquake Research Committee warns of a 70 percent chance that a great, magnitude-eight quake will strike within the next 30 years in the Kanto plains, home to Tokyo's vast urban sprawl.

The last time a "Big One" hit Tokyo was in 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake claimed more than 140,000 lives, many of them in fires. In 1855, the Ansei Edo quake also devastated the city.

More recently, the 1995 Kobe earthquake killed more then 6,400 people.

More than 220,000 people were killed when a 9.1-magnitude quake hit off Indonesia in 2004, unleashing a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean as far away as Africa.

Small quakes are felt every day somewhere in Japan and people take part in regular drills at schools and workplaces to prepare for a calamity.

Nuclear power plants and bullet trains are designed to automatically shut down when the earth rumbles and many buildings have been quake-proofed with steel and ferro-concrete at great cost in recent decades.

'Numerous' injuries in Miyagi after Japan quake: Kyodo

TOKYO, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - Numerous injuries were reported by police in Japan's Miyagi prefecture, Kyodo news reported, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake triggered a four-metre tsunami that struck the nation's Pacific coast on Friday.

NY Times, Huffington Post exchange barbs

WASHINGTON, March 11, 2011 (AFP) - The gloves are off between a pair of Old and New Media heavyweights.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the venerable New York Times, and Arianna Huffington, founder of brash newcomer The Huffington Post, exchanged blows on Thursday in a highly public spat.

Keller threw the first punch in a column for the Times magazine, calling Huffington the "queen of aggregation" in a dig at her site's practice of frequently linking to news items produced by other media outlets.

Huffington, he wrote, "has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your website and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come."

Aggregation, the Times editor said, too often "amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own website and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material."

"In Somalia this would be called piracy," he said. "In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model."

Keller went on to recount his appearance on a "Future of Journalism" panel with Huffington.

"I had come prepared with a couple of memorized riffs on media topics, which I duly presented," he said. "Afterward, we sat down for a joint interview with a local reporter.

"A moment later, I heard one of my riffs issuing verbatim from the mouth of Ms Huffington," Keller wrote. "I felt so... aggregated."

Huffington slugged back in a blog post, accusing Keller of unleashing an "exceptionally misinformed attack" on The Huffington Post, which she sold to AOL last month for $315 million, that is "as lame as it is laughable."

Searching for a motive, Keller, she said, is "perhaps unsettled by the fact that, when combined, The Huffington Post and AOL News have over 70 percent more unique visitors than The New York Times."

Huffington dismissed the accusation that The Huffington Post thrives on content produced by other news organizations.

"Even before we merged with AOL, HuffPost had 148 full-time editors, writers and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism," she said.

As for the panel incident, Huffington said she was not parroting Keller but was, in fact, repeating statements that she had made repeatedly and as many as three years earlier.
"So who was it, Bill, who was 'aggregating' someone else's ideas?" she asked.

Google lets searchers sidestep unwanted websites

SAN FRANCISCO, March 10, 2011 (AFP) - Google on Tuesday began letting people sidestep unwanted websites by eliminating them from Internet search results.

"Now there's yet another way to find more of what you want on Google by blocking the sites you don't want to see," Google search quality engineers Amay Champaneria and Beverly Yang said in a blog post.

People who jump back to the Google search results page after checking out a link will have the option of signaling they have no interest in seeing that website suggested in the future.

"Perhaps the result just wasn't quite right, but sometimes you may dislike the site in general, whether it's offensive, pornographic or of generally low quality," the engineers said.

"For times like these, you'll start seeing a new option to block particular domains from your future search results."

A small "block" button was added to options listed with search result links.

Blocked domains are associated with people's Google accounts. Subsequent searches that would have generated the unwanted websites will show instead messages indicating they were blocked.

"We're adding this feature because we believe giving you control over the results you find will provide an even more personalized and enjoyable experience on Google," the engineers said.

The new feature began rolling out Tuesday for English-language versions of Google.com accessed with the latest Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer Web browsing software.

It is to expand soon to other languages and browser software.


Internet banking surges in southeast Asia

SINGAPORE, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - Online banking sites in Southeast Asia saw a sharp rise in users last year, as institutions grew more Internet-savvy and customers got used to paying their bills on the web, research showed Wednesday.

A survey by comScore found the number of visitors to online bank websites rose by double-digit figures over the 12 months from January 2010 in all six of the countries they looked at, including a 72 percent rise in Indonesia.

Malaysia had the biggest number of internet banking customers, with 2.7 million in January 2011, according to the research conducted in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore.

"Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines have the highest percentage increases year-over-year as banks are now getting better at providing these online services," said Joe Nguyen, vice president for comScore Southeast Asia.

Malaysia saw growth of 16 percent year-on-year from 2.4 million, while Hong Kong came in second in terms of user numbers, with 1.3 million in January 2010 rising to 1.5 million a year later -- an 18 percent increase.

Next up was Singapore with 779,000 unique visitors in January 2010 rising to 889,000 a year later, a 14 percent rise.

Countries where the market is less developed saw the biggest percentage jumps, with Indonesian online banking users rising from 435,000 in January 2010 to 749,000 a year later, and those in the Philippines up 39 percent from 377,000 to 525,000 over the same period.

Users in Vietnam were up 35 percent from 701,000 to 949,000.

Despite the stellar growth numbers, Nguyen said online banking had a great deal of room to grow in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

"All three markets still have relatively low usage reach relative to their population," he said.

"We have seen online banking really take off when users can start paying for their utility, their phone bills online and all that stuff... so the difference between the top three markets and the bottom three markets are probably contributed (to) by this," added Nguyen.

"So we expect this to grow as those services come into play in Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia."

Banks with a strong local brand presence tended to be the most popular destinations, comScore found, with Maybank Group coming top in Malaysia, Vietcombank in Vietnam and DBS in Singapore.

Global banks HSBC and Citigroup also featured in the top destinations, the survey said.

Taiwan spat eases after Philippine olive branch

TAIPEI, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan partially eased punitive measures against the Philippines Wednesday after Manila sacked officials involved in the deportation of Taiwanese nationals to China.

In a sign the rift over the deportation of 14 Taiwanese suspected of involvement in a major scam may be easing, Taipei relaxed some of the strict requirements it had imposed on Philippine workers last month, Taiwan's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The move came after the Philippine government removed two officials from its Bureau of Immigration which was involved in the deportations.

Taiwan has expressed anger at the episode, insisting that the suspects should have been sent back to face justice on the island instead and warned Manila that the incident had dealt a serious blow to bilateral ties.

In retaliation it raised the screening period for Filipino workers to the maximum four months and threatened to bar them from entry after the row, although no such action has yet been taken.

There are more than 70,000 Philippine workers in Taiwan, sending home hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Philippine emissary Manuel Roxas voiced his government's "deepest regrets over whatever problems and hurt feelings the incident may have caused the people of Taiwan".

He also guaranteed that "we will undertake every good faith effort such that the unfortunate incident will not happen again".

Huang Yu-pin, one of 18 Taiwanese arrested in the Philippines in December on suspicion of fraud, was escorted back to Taiwan late Tuesday night, the Criminal Investigation Bureau said.

The 30-year-old was wanted for other fraud cases, and the deportation was welcomed by the island, which had complained over the "improper" deportation to China of Taiwanese nationals involved in another case.

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war in 1949, although Beijing claims the island. The Philippines has formal ties with China only but maintains economic and cultural links with Taiwan.

Videolink from Singapore in Romania diplomat case

BUCHAREST, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - A Bucharest court ruled Wednesday that witnesses in Singapore can be heard via videolink in the case of a Romanian diplomat charged with manslaughter after a hit-and-run car crash there.

Silviu Ionescu, a former Romanian charge d'affaire in the state city, is charged with manslaughter, causing physical injuries and making false statements after the accident in December 2009.

Ionescu pleads not guilty. He has always denied he was the driver and says the car was stolen.

The diplomat is alleged to have hit three pedestrians while driving a car belonging to the Romanian mission and to have fled the scene.

One pedestrian, a 30-year-old Malaysian national, suffered brain damage and died on Christmas Day.

One of the victim's friends, Bonghwee Haw, a 23-year-old Malaysian who was also severely injured in the crash, will testify through a videolink on May 6, the judge ruled.

Another pedestrian injured in the crash, Yenny Young, will be heard the same day also through videolink.

A further 20 witnesses from Singapore are also expected to testify between May 12 and May 20.

The court on Wednesday asked to receive the complete listing of calls given from the Romanian mission in Singapore as well as from Ionescu's phone there at the time of the accident.

Ionescu's trial started on October 6 last year in front of a Bucharest court.

Asked about the lenghth of the trial, Anil Kumar Nayar, a Singapore envoy attending the hearing in Bucharest, told AFP that he believed the court "has its own consideration in terms of how it has timed the case".

"There is a legal process in Romania which we must respect. The important thing for us is that the process must move forward in a way to make sure that justice is done", he added.

Chinese voices find outlet in microblogs

BEIJING, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - Yu Jianrong has spent years advocating the rights of China's rural poor and denouncing lawless officials, but five months ago he took a step that expanded the reach of that campaign exponentially.

Since opening a Twitter-like microblog account in October, the outspoken professor has emerged as a trail-blazer in harnessing the medium -- which barely existed here a year ago -- as an avenue for public expression.

And as the country's docile parliament meets this week in Beijing, online voices like Yu's are increasingly stirring the real public debate -- and they are voices the ruling Communist Party will have to listen to, experts say.

A professor of rural issues at a top state think-tank in Beijing, Yu, 48, has deftly walked a fine line to highlight perhaps China's hottest political issue today -- the depredations suffered by the country's lower classes.

"Current technology has altered the social environment. Everyone has a microphone. Everyone is a news headquarters," Yu, a former lawyer, said of microblogging in a recent Chinese media interview.

From his digital soapbox, Yu, who is invited to address officials across the country on proper governance, has publicised his lecturing of authorities who mistreat or suppress the populace.

And he has called in recent blog postings for real constitutional democracy and an end to oppression.

"In the long run, pressure cannot maintain stability and could cause new instability. It is tantamount to quenching a thirst with poison," he said in one post.

In January, he delved into another charged issue -- persistent abductions of children who are often sold as labourers or forced to beg -- by launching a separate blog to help parents find missing kids that became a media sensation.

The two microblogs on portal Sina.com have nearly 800,000 combined followers.

Micro-blogs, like the rest of China's Internet, are heavily censored.

But Yu has avoided muzzling by stopping short of directly criticising top leaders -- he instead focuses on officials' failure to follow "rules". He also refuses foreign media interviews, which could be seen as provocative.

"I think you understand China, so you must know that these issues are just too sensitive," Yu said in declining an AFP request.

After Chinese censors blocked Twitter in 2009, several homegrown versions emerged with enhanced services such as photo and video embedding, and proved wildly popular with China's world-topping 457 million web users.

Market leader Sina.com told AFP it now has more than 100 million microblog users.
The real-time exchange of ideas is pushing the boundaries of Chinese censorship and provoking clear, if so far modest, government responses.

Several recent cases of official abuses or miscarriages of justice were addressed after they went viral on microblogs.

Yu's abducted-child microblog -- which employs the photo-embed feature to allow parents to post pictures of missing kids -- prompted a flurry of state media coverage and a new government pledge to address the problem.

And while no certain link can be made, Yu's microblogging on the rights of China's rural poor coincided with escalating government promises to address the issue ahead of the parliamentary session.

"Microblogging is a great leap forward in terms of public opinion and speech, and Yu is not the only one using them in this way," said Xiao Qiang, editor of the China Digital Times, a US-based site focusing on Internet news from China.

"China's official media usually don't touch some of these issues. So someone like Yu Jianrong can say more than official media can."

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a recent report microblogs had helped make the Internet "the principal arena where the battles for freedom of expression" in China are fought.

So far the official response has been to both embrace yet censor microblogging.

Authorities have censored news and discussion of the "Jasmine" uprisings in the Arab world as well as anonymous online calls for protests in China.

But a government white paper last year singled out microblogging's value in keeping authorities honest and growing numbers of officials and government departments have jumped on the bandwagon, opening their own accounts.

The official Xinhua news agency said last week that microblog debate had "underlined the Chinese people's willingness to participate in talks on the country's future."

"Nothing short of a communications revolution is taking place" in China, Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

"Mobile phones and the Internet are profoundly transforming how citizens see themselves and their degree of tolerance for the arbitrariness shown by the state."

Google Ventures backs online marketing startup

SAN FRANCISCO, March  8, 2011 (AFP) - Google's investment arm on Tuesday joined Sequoia Capital and cloud computing star Salesforce in backing online marketing and Web analytics startup HubSpot.

Google Ventures was among investors that pumped $32 million into HubSpot, which specializes in cultivating business leads and sales using blogs, search engines, Twitter and other Internet Age mediums.

"The fundamental way that people shop, learn, and buy has changed radically in the last few years," said HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan.

"HubSpot helps transform the way businesses market from outbound marketing (such as) cold calls, email blasts, and direct mail to inbound marketing (such as) Google, blogs, social media, mobile, etc."

HubSpot has grown to 4,000 customers since it was founded in June 2006 in the state of Massachusetts.

HubSpot helps websites rank high in Internet search results on the premise that it is more promising to get people's attention when they seek something rather than interrupting them with television ads or other pitches.

HubSpot also matches businesses with software offered as online services by Salesforce.

Online travel sites seek to ground Google-ITA deal

WASHINGTON, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - When Google and Yahoo! forged an advertising pact in 2008, Thomas Barnett headed the anti-trust division of the US Department of Justice, which stepped in and torpedoed the deal.

Fast forward to today and Barnett, now in private practice, again has Google in his sights.

Barnett is serving as counsel for Expedia.com, which has joined with several other online travel websites in an effort to ground Google's proposed $700 million acquisition of flight information company ITA Software.

Expedia and other members of the FairSearch.org coalition are urging the Justice Department to block the Google-ITA deal -- just as it did in November 2008 with the Google-Yahoo! advertising agreement.

They are claiming that Google's purchase of ITA would give the Internet search giant too much control over the lucrative online travel sector and lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

"You're taking the dominant flight search engine company, which is ITA, and you're combining it with the dominant online search company, which is Google," Barnett told AFP.

"You're going to end up with a combined entity that will be positioned to come in and dominate the online travel search space."

Steve Kaufer, president and chief executive of TripAdvisor, an Expedia brand and ITA client, said competition is needed to keep airline ticket prices down.

"Fares stay low generally because consumers are able to find a wide range of fares from a wide range of airlines on a wide range of sites," Kaufer said.

A Google takeover of ITA could lead to "only one place to shop," he said, "and that might be good for Google but it's anti-consumer."

Other FairSearch.org members include Hotwire, another Expedia brand, Kayak and its brand SideStep, Sabre Holdings and its brand Travelocity, Microsoft, Foundem of Britain, France's Level and Farelogix.

ITA Software, a 500-person firm founded in 1996 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientists, specializes in organizing airline data, including flight times, availability and prices.

ITA flight data software is used by many US airlines and a number of leading online travel sites, including Expedia's Hotwire and TripAdvisor, Kayak, Orbitz and Microsoft's Bing search engine.

Google said the ITA acquisition would help it create new tools that will make it easier for consumers to search for travel, compare flight options and prices and drive more customers to online travel agencies.

The Mountain View, California-based company has said it has no plans to sell airline tickets or set airfare prices.

Robert Birge, chief marketing officer for Kayak, said ITA offers a "unique and irreplaceable asset, one that the industry has come to rely on."

Google's ownership of ITA would allow it to limit access to the company's products, Birge said, "either by not renewing licensing agreements or by not passing along upgrades."

He also voiced fears that because of Google's online search dominance, "if someone is searching for something like cheap flights, Google could intercept that with their own product."

Barnett said the Justice Department could put restrictions on the Google-ITA deal to protect competition, but they would be difficult to monitor or enforce.

"In this case, the best answer really is to block the transaction," he said, adding that a Justice Department decision is expected "virtually anytime."

Birge said Kayak has attempted to open discussions with Google and ITA about renewing the company's ITA agreement, which expires at the end of 2013.

"We said we'd like to get the contract extended on equitable terms, to get assurances that we're going to continue to get upgrades, to get assurances that our intellectual property will be protected," he said.

Orbitz, however, which is not a FairSearch.org member, had its agreement with ITA renewed last month, through December 2015, in a move seen as dealing a potential blow to the opponents of the acquisition.

In another development since the Google-ITA deal was announced in July, Microsoft announced last week that Kayak will power travel search in Bing.

Commenting on the Kayak-Bing move, a Google spokesman told AFP: "This is just the latest evidence of how fast things are evolving in online flight search, and how much room there is for other players to compete.

"We're eager to bring more competition and choices for consumers searching for flights online," the spokesman said.

China to invest $200 bln in low-income housing

BEIJING, March  9, 2011 (AFP) - China will invest around $200 billion this year in affordable housing, a senior official said Wednesday, as Beijing struggles to address mounting public concern over runaway property prices.

The country will spend more than 1.3 trillion yuan to build or renovate 10 million apartments for low-income households this year, Qi Ji, a vice minister of housing and urban-rural development, told reporters.

Governments at all levels will provide more than 500 billion yuan of the total investment, with the remaining funds to be raised from companies and families who will benefit from the programme, he said at a news conference.

Authorities will introduce favourable policies such as loans, subsidies and tax incentives to support the construction of the flats, he said.

"With the current financing channels and the support of new policies, I believe it is completely viable that we can accomplish the task of building 10 million low-income apartments," Qi said.

State media however have reported that the government fell short of last year's target of building 5.8 million affordable dwellings.

China's soaring property prices, combined with stubbornly high consumer prices in recent months, have become a source of anxiety for the public and top leaders, who are fearful of inflation's potential to spark social unrest.

Premier Wen Jiabao, in a "state of the nation" speech to open the country's annual parliamentary session on Saturday, vowed his government would work harder to address public concerns over a string of problems including growing income disparity and surging house prices.

Wen repeated government promises to curb property speculation, which is blamed for stoking prices, and ensure an adequate supply of low-income housing.

Local officials who fail to stabilise property prices and promote the construction of low-income housing, and "thereby affect social development and stability", will be held accountable, he said.

Qi said Wednesday that the government was focused on making sure those most in need had access to housing.

"The focus of our current adjustment and control policy is to postpone (the demand of) some consumers who do not need to buy houses immediately for living purposes," he said.

"(We) intend to use the temporarily limited supply to meet the most urgent demand of consumers who need to buy housing for living purposes."

He said the government was closely monitoring the introduction of a property tax in Shanghai and Chongqing in the southwest, adding authorities would move forward based on experiences gathered from the trials in those cities.

New Chrome browser ready for the world

SAN FRANCISCO, March  8, 2011 (AFP) - Google on Tuesday released a finished version of its speedy new Chrome Web browsing software for desktop or laptop computers.

The latest version of Chrome promised quick and responsive handling of software running in the Web browser.

"We realize that speed isn't just about pure brawn in the browser," Google engineer Tim Steele said in a blog post announcing the latest Chrome release.

"It's also about saving time with simple interfaces."

Google improved settings for bookmarks, passwords, searches and home pages as well as enhanced protection from websites booby-trapped by hackers with malicious code.

The latest Chrome browser software is available free online at google.com/chrome. Earlier versions of the Web browser already being used in computers will be automatically updated, according to Google.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the most widely used Web browser in the United States followed by Firefox, Chrome and Apple's Safari.

Google to digitise Mandela archives

JOHANNESBURG, March  8, 2011 (AFP) - The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Google Tuesday said they have begun digitising thousands of previously unseen Mandela files to make them available online.

"What sets this archive apart from other resources is that it will be made available for free to audiences around the world," said Achmat Dangor, the Foundation's chief executive.

A collection of Mandela's journals while in prison, private letters and notes he scribbled while seated at high-level meetings are some of the articles that will soon be released on the Internet.

The Foundation said it was negotiating with foreign governments and other institutions that hold some crucial Mandela documents to make them available for archiving.

"We don't expect them to hand over the originals, but we will accept copies," said Dangor.
Dangor added that some material may contain extremely personal notes or information about people who are still living.

"We will publish all of those, but in some cases highly sensitive material will not be published. It is not a question of censorship but sensitivity," said Dangor.

"We will endeavour to make it as comprehensive as possible," he added.

Google gave the Foundation a $1.25-million grant to undertake the project.

The process of scanning some of the fading documents has already started, said Sello Hatang of the Foundation.

He said the digitised work will be completed in phases, with the entire archiving process finished in a matter of months.

Mandela is currently recovering at his Johannesburg home after a brief hospitalisation in January.

The much-loved statesman and anti-apartheid hero who became South Africa's first black president retired from public life in 2004. He only served a single presidential term from 1994 to 1999.

Google logo, maps mark International Women's Day

WASHINGTON, March  8, 2011 (AFP) - Google marked International Women's Day Tuesday by dedicating its logo to the 100th anniversary of the celebration of women's achievements and by giving Google Maps' icon Pegman a female sidekick -- Pegwoman.

The colorful logo, known as a doodle, on the Google home page features a woman graduate and doctor in place of the last two letters of Google.

Clicking on the image takes users to the site of the "Join Me on the Bridge" campaign, which calls for men and women to meet on bridges in their communities to recognize a century of women's achievements.

Google teamed up late last month with Women for Women International, organizers of "Join Me on the Bridge," to help publicize the event.

Since then, "almost 300 bridge events in more than 50 countries have been added to the map," Claire Hughes Johnson, chair of the Google Women's Professional Community and vice president of global online sales, said in a blog post.

"I've found it inspiring to watch all of those little red pins pop up, knowing that each of them represents a group of women and their supporters coming together to let the world know how far we've come," she said.

Johnson also noted that Pegman, the icon that guides users around Google's Street View, has "a new friend" to mark International Women's Day.

"He invited his colleague Pegwoman to join him on the map today," Johnson wrote.

When the male icon from the zoom tool is dragged onto a Google map, it turns into a dress-clad female icon in honor of International Women's Day, created 100 years ago, when just two countries allowed women to vote, to celebrate women's achievements and advocate for equal rights.

Mahathir says Lee wanted to be Malaysian PM

KUALA LUMPUR, March  8, 2011 (AFP) - Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad said in a book published Tuesday that Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was unhappy with his "municipal role" at the helm of the city-state, and harboured ambitions to lead Malaysia.

In his latest broadside against Singapore's founding father, Mahathir, Malaysian premier from 1981 to 2003, said his bitter rival had wanted to take over Malaysia when the island-state was part of the Malaysian federation.

Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak merged with peninsula Malaysia to create the federation of Malaysia in 1963, but Singapore was ejected in 1965, following racial clashes and political and economic differences.

Lee remained Singaporean prime minister until 1990.

"Lee saw Malaysia as his chance to dominate a substantial nation and become its prime minister," Mahathir said in his 809-page "A Doctor In The House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad", which hit bookshelves Tuesday.

"The Singapore of the early 1960s was too small for him and his ambitions.

"Malaysia was a real country, not a city-state and to become Prime Minister of Malaysia would satisfy his ambitions, especially for power and a more than municipal role," he wrote.

Mahathir said he had often clashed with Lee when Singapore was part of Malaysia, adding that Lee was "condescending" when addressing parliament.

"Lee and I had a civil relationship, but it was never a friendship," he said, adding that Lee had labelled him a Malay 'ultra' -- or extremist -- although he himself was one.

 "Lee did not see himself as an extremist... when in commenting upon Malay poverty and its causes, he remarked that 'it is not the Malays themselves who are backward, just their culture.'"

A sleepy backwater trading port upon separation in 1965, Lee transformed Singapore into an economic powerhouse.

Its economy grew at 14.7 percent in 2010, doubling Malaysia's 7.2 percent.

Official figures show Singapore's GDP per capita had increased from 512 dollars in 1965 to 36,537 dollars in 2009, while Malaysia's GDP per capita lagged behind on 335 dollars in 1965 to 6,975 in 2009.

The two former leaders had failed to resolve rows over the price of the water that Malaysia supplies to resource-scarce Singapore and access for the city-state's military to Malaysian airspace.

Mahathir stepped down in 2003, at a time when relations between the two neighbours were at a low. Ties have improved since Najib Razak took over from Mahathir's successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009.


Singapore to triple desalination capacity by 2013

SINGAPORE, March  7, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore will more than triple its desalinated water capacity in two years' time when the country's second and largest desalination plant starts operations, the government said Monday.

The Public Utilities Board (PUB), in a statement to announce that local firm Hyflux has won the award to build the plant, said the water treatment facility is expected to be operational in 2013.

Hyflux in a separate statement said the project, which also includes the building of a power plant, is worth Sg$890 million ($704 million) and construction is expected to start by the fourth quarter of 2011.

The PUB said the new plant will produce 70 million imperial gallons (mgd) or 318,500 cubic metres of water per day, more than tripling the city-state's current desalination capacity from 30mgd to 100 mgd.

It said the plant will "enhance the drought resilience of Singapore's water supply, and ensure reliability for Singapore's water users".

The new plant will use membrane technology and generate its own power on-site for the process of salt removal that makes seawater potable.

Singapore announced last June that it aims to up its desalination capacity by almost ten times and meet 30 percent of its population's water demand by 2060.

Desalinated water -- costlier to produce than reclaimed waste water -- now provides 10 percent of Singapore's needs, while local catchments and imported water from neighbouring Malaysia account for the rest.

Singapore, lacking in natural resources including water, used to depend heavily on Malaysia for water to supplement its limited reservoir network, but in recent years has developed desalination and water recycling to reduce its reliance on foreign sources.

Huff Post closes deal to join AOL

WASHINGTON, March  7, 2011 (AFP) - The Huffington Post officially joined AOL Monday, celebrating with the announcement that it had nabbed reporters from The New York Times, Yahoo!, and even Rupert Murdoch's new iPad newspaper The Daily.

The latest hires at the fast-growing news and opinion website were unveiled as AOL's $315 million acquisition of The Huffington Post formally closed.

"One of the Huffington Post Media Group's main goals is to deliver engaging and high-impact journalism, and these hires are an exciting addition to our reporting team," The Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington said.

"These new hires, which are only the beginning, demonstrate our commitment to great journalism," AOL chairman and chief executive Tim Armstrong said in a statement.

The latest hires boost The Huffington's Post staff to around 150 reporters and editors.

With the closing of the deal, Arianna Huffington takes over as president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, which will preside over all AOL Media and AOL Local properties.

The acquisition of The Huffington Post was the latest high-profile media buy by Armstrong, the former Google executive who was brought in by AOL two years ago in an attempt to turn around a company whose name has become synonymous with the dotcom era's excesses.

In September, AOL purchased TechCrunch, a leading Silicon Valley technology blog. Other AOL properties include Engadget, Patch, Moviefone, MapQuest, Black Voices, PopEater, AOL Music, AOL Latino, AutoBlog and StyleList.

AOL, formerly known as America Online, fused with Time Warner in 2001 at the height of the dotcom boom in what is considered one of the most disastrous mergers ever.

It was spun off by Time Warner in December into an independent company.

AOL shares were down 2.24 percent at $19.60 in early trading on Wall Street on Monday.

Skype to introduce ads

WASHINGTON, March  7, 2011 (AFP) - Skype, the hugely popular free Internet communications service, announced plans Monday to introduce advertising as it seeks to boost revenue ahead of going public.

Skype, which bypasses the standard telephone network by channeling voice, video and text conversations over the Web, said the ads will appear only in Britain, Germany and the United States for now.

The introduction of advertising is Skype's latest bid to increase revenue ahead of an initial public offering expected later this year.

The Luxembourg-based Skype, which was founded in 2003, announced plans in August to raise up to 100 million dollars by listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

"The Skype experience is our first priority, which is why we we've taken a lot of time working through and testing what kind of advertising would work best in the Skype environment," Skype said in a blog post.

"We believe that advertising, when done in the right way, will help us continue to invest in developing great products," the company said.

It said initial advertisers include discount coupon site Groupon, Universal Pictures, and Visa.

Skype said ads will appear in the home tab in Skype for Windows "and we may experiment with ads in other areas as well."

"The ads won't interrupt your Skype experience," the company said. "You won't suddenly see annoying pop-up ads or flashy banner ads in middle of conversations."

According to its IPO registration statement, Skype generated $406 million in revenue in the first half of 2010 and had 560 million registered users.