2011/08/06

Japan PM in Hiroshima vows nuclear-free future

HIROSHIMA, August  6, 2011 (AFP) - A ceremony on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing was dominated by national soul-searching on atomic power as Japan's prime minister pledged a nuclear-free future.

Marking the 66th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing at an annual event usually devoted to opposing nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the ongoing Fukushima crisis meant Japan must turn to other energy sources.

"The large-scale, long-running nuclear accident has triggered radiation leakage, causing serious concerns not only in Japan but also in the world," Kan, in black suit and tie, said at a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima's Peace Park.

"I will reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power, aiming at creating a society that will not rely on atomic power generation," he added.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the ongoing nuclear accident, which has leaked radiation into air, soil and sea and forced tens of thousands to leave their homes, leading to rising public anger.

In more rare remarks on energy policy, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui also called for the government to review its sources of power after Fukushima, the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

"The continuing radiation scare has made many people live in fear and undermined people's confidence in nuclear power," he said.

"The Japanese government must quickly review the energy policy... to regain people's understanding and trust," he said.

A city official said around 50,000 people took part in the ceremony to remember the 1945 atomic bombing, which killed an estimated 140,000 people instantly or due to burns and radiation sickness soon after the blast.

Over 70,000 perished as a result of another US atomic attack on the port of Nagasaki three days later.

Saturday's ceremony was attended by representatives of more than 60 countries including the United States.

Kan, who also plans to attend a ceremony to mark the Nagasaki bombing on Tuesday, stressed in his speech: "We must never forget the calamity of a nuclear arm that attacked Hiroshima 66 years ago. We must never let it happen again."

At a press conference in Hiroshima afterwards, Kan said a nuclear accident and an atomic bombing share something in common -- causing worries due to spreading radiation.

"I felt even more strongly (after the accident) about the importance to seek a society free from nuclear weapons, a society that doesn't trigger problems due to radiation," he said.

"The government's policy and my speech (at the ceremony) correspond with each other."

Kan, a one-time environmental activist, has pledged to boost alternative energy sources to 20 percent of the nation's energy mix by the 2020s. They currently make up about nine percent, most of it hydroelectric power.

But the embattled prime minister has been fighting calls to resign amid rock-bottom poll ratings, while his government is still struggling to control the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

The government and operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) are aiming to bring the damaged nuclear reactors at the plant to a state of cold shutdown by January.

2011/08/05

Japanese inventor develops flying sphere drone

TOKYO, August  5, 2011 (AFP) - A Japanese defence researcher has invented a spherical observation drone that can fly down narrow alleys, hover on the spot, take off vertically and bounce along the ground.

About the size of a beachball and jet black, the remote-controlled Spherical Air Vehicle resembles a tiny Death Star from the Star Wars movies but has a more benign purpose -- to transmit live images from a video camera.

It is powered by a propeller protected by a spherical shield with large openings for airflow, meaning a knock into a wall or a tumble to the ground will not damage it.

Research to improve the device is continuing, but its designer says that in the future it could be used as a formidable pursuit vehicle that can travel above traffic or spy on a target through a window.

Its inventor in pacifist Japan hopes it could also help with non-aggressive operations, such as search and rescue in disaster zones, where it could fly through buildings and even up and down stairways.

"This is the world's first spherical air vehicle," said its developer, Fumiyuki Sato, a research engineer at the Defence Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute in Tokyo.

The latest model, the seventh prototype, is equipped with a single propeller, shielded by the shell, with flaps and wings to control its flight, and can zip through the air at up to 60 kilometres (37 miles) per hour.

Sato said all its components can be found in shops in Tokyo's electronic tech-geek heaven of Akihabara, at 100-yen shops where every item sells for about a dollar, or on the Internet.

The motor at the core is contained by a modified plastic bottle, and the total cost for the parts come to 110,000 yen ($1,400) for the latest model, which weighs just 350 grams (12.3 ounces) and has a diameter of 42 centimetres (16.8 inches).

Sato admits that many hurdles remain before the flying sphere can be put to practical use, including adding an autopilot function and finding ways to cope with turbulence and poor weather conditions.

The current model could not, for example, be used at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, crippled by the March 11 quake and tsunami, because it can only fly within the field of vision of the controller, he said.

"Even though I can see footage from the mounted camera, it would be very difficult to control this" using the video, Sato said, noting that the drone floats in the air at a very delicate balance and cannot stop quickly.

Nonetheless, Sato sees a range of possible missions for the drone in future.

A more advanced model, he said, could hover above a motorcade for security, or, if in pursuit of a fleeing target, "it could go below an electric cable, fly above the next one, and then turn a street corner."

Japanese parents live with radiation fear

FUKUSHIMA, August 5, 2011 (AFP) - Parents living near Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant are facing a nightmare dilemma: evacuate their children or live with the fear that radiation will make them sick.

Since the crisis started on March 11, authorities have raised the exposure limit for children to that used for atomic plant workers in many countries but have sought to reassure families their children are safe.

Some people have listened to the official advice, then voted with their feet and moved out of the fallout zone -- but most have stayed, reluctant to give up their jobs, homes and lives, despite the lingering fear.

In Fukushima city, home to 300,000 people, playgrounds are eerily quiet while children play indoors, one layer removed from the dangers of the atomic plant 60 kilometres (40 miles) away on the tsunami-ravaged coast.

Most schools have banned children from playing football or baseball on outdoor fields or splashing around in swimming pools exposed to the sky. The windows of classrooms remain shut despite a summer heat wave.

More than 300 children have left the city's elementary and junior high schools since April, says the education board in Fukushima, where town workers have been washing down the walls of school buildings.

"We fully understand the feelings of parents, but we want them to act calmly," board official Yoshimasa Kanno told AFP, adding that the city will hand a radiation dosimetre to every student by September.

One mother, Sachiko Sato, 53, who lives in Kawamata, just 35 kilometres from the crippled plant, has moved her two children to another town, although she has stayed behind in the family home.

"We asked ourselves what's most important to us," she said. "For some people it's their job, for others its family ties. For me it's my children's future."

Another parent, Hiroshi Ueki, 40, a former kindergarten worker, moved his wife and two sons, aged one and four, to Matsumoto in the mountainous prefecture of Nagano, 280 kilometres away.

Remembering family life in their home town, he said, "everyday I used to tell my sons: 'Don't touch this. Don't eat that. Don't take your mask off'."

"When we got to Nagano, my son was still asking me: 'Dad, can I touch this flower? Can I touch that car? Can I play in the rain?' When I heard him say that, I was almost crying."

Ueki is one of a growing number of local citizens who, in a movement rarely seen in consensus-seeking Japan and fuelled over the past four months by social media, are challenging the government.

"The government is saying it's safe and secure," said Ueki, who is back in Fukushima, trying to convince other parents to leave.

"But they can really only say that 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now -- if nothing has actually happened by then."

Japan's radiation limit was raised from 1.0 to 20 millisieverts per year after Japan's worst quake on record triggered a tsunami that slammed into the Fukushima plant, triggering a series of meltdowns and explosions.

In Fukushima city, authorities now estimate aerial exposure of 5.4 to 13.6 millisieverts per year -- not counting, critics point out, any internal exposure from food or dust contaminated with radioactive isotopes.

Fears were fuelled when a recent test showed small amounts of radioactive substances in the urine samples of all of the 10 children surveyed.

According to the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, which carried out the tests with a French non-government group, 1.3 becquerels of caesium-137 per litre was found in the urine of a seven-year-old boy.

Japan's central government downplayed the concern, with the education and science minister, Yoshiaki Takagi, stating that the level was too low to affect children's health immediately.

Many doctors have also advised parents in Fukushima not to overreact if their children suffer symptoms such as bleeding or diarrhoea, saying they are unlikely to be related to radiation under current exposure levels.

But they also argue that authorities should not reach hasty and easy conclusions, saying that the findings at least show that children in Fukushima have been exposed to a certain level of radioactivity.

Radiation safety experts agree that children face a higher risk from radiation-linked cancers and other diseases than adults, but they disagree on just how high the risk is, amid a global dearth of long-term studies.

"It has been medically proven that children can be at greater risk of radiation exposure than adults," said Tokyo paediatrician Makoto Yamada.

"No-one can accurately predict the eventual physical impact of radiation on people in Fukushima," Yamada told AFP. "It is the authorities' duty to take careful measures considering the worst-case scenario."

One radiation expert, Toshiso Kosako of Tokyo University, quit his government advisory job in tears in April when the radiation limit was raised, saying he wouldn't expose his own children to those levels.

Another fearful Fukushima parent is medical worker Masayoshi Tezuka, 42, who evacuated his two daughters for a while, then brought them back, citing the stress of splitting the children from their working parents.

Tezuka said he was shocked when he recently saw pictures of Ukrainian children with neck scars from surgery for thyroid cancer, blamed on radiation exposure from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

"In my mind I swapped their faces with those of my daughters," he said. "It was dreadful. I'm still wondering if this is what will one day happen to my daughters. That fear is still haunting me."

Tiger Airways Australia hits new safety snag

SYDNEY, August 5, 2011 (AFP) - Grounded low-cost carrier Tiger Airways Australia hit fresh problems Friday, with aviation regulators knocking back a redrafted safety manual in a move that will see its flight ban extended.

The Australian arm of Singapore's Tiger Airways has been grounded since July 2 over "serious and imminent" safety risks related to pilot training, fatigue management and other issues.

Negotiations for the ban to be lifted were in their final stages this week but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) said "some of the documentation that they have provided is not complete and accurate and up to date."

"We've asked them to revise that, which they are doing, and obviously we can't move forward with the matter until we get that back from them and reassess it," CASA spokesman Peter Gibson told AFP.

"That obviously has delayed things a bit."

Gibson said it was unclear how long that delay would be, but dismissed reports in Australian media that it could be until the end of August.

The problems relate to "key safety documents, manuals essentially that underpin the operations of the airline" which CASA had asked Tiger to amend before it would be allowed to fly again.

The manual outlining how Tiger would manage and process its operational data was of particular concern, Gibson said, which was "quite central to safety."

The airline's Singapore-based parent company Tiger Airways Holdings issued a statement to the Singapore Stock Exchange saying it "continues to work constructively" with CASA.

"The two parties are in ongoing discussions to resolve the issues," the company said.

"There is no information available yet as to when Tiger Airways Australia may resume services, but it is committed to do so as soon as possible."

The company said Tiger Airways Australia incurred a SGD$23.2 million (US$19 million) loss in the first quarter, compared with a SGD$10.6 million loss in the same period in 2010, due to higher fuel prices and disruption from the Chile ash cloud in June.

"With the loss incurred in the first quarter, and the suspension of all domestic services in Australia for more than a month, we expect Tiger Airways Australia to report a net loss for this financial year," Tiger Holdings said, reporting a SGD$20.6 million after-tax loss for the quarter company-wide.

"The Group’s financial performance will be significantly affected by the expected losses of Tiger Airways Australia, while being exposed to high and volatile jet fuel prices," it added.

2011/08/04

Plants worldwide at risk of cyber attacks: researcher

LAS VEGAS, August 4, 2011 (AFP) - Researchers warned on Wednesday that energy facilities and industrial plants of all kinds are vulnerable to destructive cyber attacks, in some cases with something as simple as a text message.

Frightening presentations at a prestigious Black Hat computer security conference were preceded by official alerts to energy producers detailing the weaknesses and urging steps be taken to beef up defenses.

"This is not just the United States, it is around the globe," said Tim Roxey, director of risk assessment at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) responsible for enforcement of industry standards.

"If somebody really has you in their sites, they've got you," he said of the situation.

Black Hat presentations that triggered the NERC alerts revealed that "PLC" units that control basic factory functions ranging from turbines to valves or even sorting could be commandeered by hackers.

The point was to debunk myths of how it took a nation state with millions of dollars and teams of researchers to penetrate nuclear power plants in attacks by an infamous "Stuxnet" virus, according to NSS Labs security researcher Dillon Beresford.

Beresford described finding a way into PLCs made by Germany-based Siemens AG in a matter of weeks working in his bedroom.

A Siemens representative that took part in the presentation said the company has been working with researchers on the situation.

"It is not only nation states that have this capability, it is now in the hands of researchers and will inevitably get into malicious hands," Beresford said.

"It could be some lone hacker," he continued. "Most people with the time and resources could pull this off."

Cyber attackers would need to get access to machines, which was said to be less daunting than it sounded, according to Beresford.

Research presented by iSEC Partners security consultant Don Bailey showed that mobile Internet connection cards used in some PLCs in remote locations could be given commands by text messages, provided the senders knew the numbers assigned to cards.

"We can talk about vulnerabilities in PLCs, GSM (mobile networks), or my socks," Bailey said.

"But the talk has to be about the cost, and machine-to-machine communications exploding in the GSM world," he continued.

Computers insulated from the internet by "air gaps" could find defenses breached by mobile connection cards used for long-distance monitoring or links to sensors that feed information to the Internet, according to Bailey's research.

Cold War gives way to Code War: CIA veteran

LAS VEGAS, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - A US counterterrorism expert warned Wednesday that the Cold War has given way to a "Code War" in which cyber weapons can be unleashed with devastating consequences.

Nations will launch online attacks and extremist groups will add cyber attacks to their tactics, according to Cofer Black, who spent 28 years in the Central Intelligence Agency before becoming a private consultant.

"You had the Cold War, the global war on terrorism... now you have the Code War," Cofer said at a major Black Hat computer security gathering in Las Vegas.

"The natural thing will be for Al-Qaeda to fall back to things that are small and agile," he continued. "They will enter the cyber world."

It will fall to computer security specialists such as the 8,500 Black Hat attendees to fortify defenses against such attacks and overcome the challenge of identifying culprits.

Figuring out who is behind cyber attacks is imperative as the United States and other countries weigh the option of real-world military retaliation for virtual incursions, according to Cofer.

"Boy, hold onto your seat," he told the gathering. "I could see myself in the situation room on the receiving end of a technical attack with physical dimensions saying 'Who did this and what are we going to do?'"

Microsoft offers big money prize for foiling hackers

LAS VEGAS, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - Microsoft on Wednesday kicked off a contest aimed at turning the tables on hackers by offering big money prizes for innovative tactics to foil cyber attacks.

The US software titan launched the premier BlueHat Prize competition at a major Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas.

"As the risk of criminal attacks on private and government computer systems continues to increase, Microsoft recognizes the need to stimulate research in the area of defensive computer security technology," said Microsoft Trustworthy Computer Group general manager Matt Thomlinson.

"Our interest is to promote a focus on developing innovative solutions rather than discovering individual issues," he continued.

Microsoft opted to offer prizes for defending against entire types of cyber attacks instead of simple paying "bounties" to those that discover individual computer bugs.

BlueHat promised more than $250,000 dollars in cash and other prizes to software savants at young as 14 years old. The theme for the first year of the contest was preventing hacks exploiting computer memory vulnerabilities.

Microsoft said it hoped the contest would inspire contributions from researchers, security professionals, and even young hackers.

"Some of the value in this prize is beyond money; it is inspiring not just the current generation but the next generation," said Microsoft lead security strategist Katie Moussouris.

"We have found that some of our best defenders come from the opposite side of the security coin," she added.

BlueHat Prize entries will be evaluated by an internal panel of judges at Microsoft, with $200,000 going to the top submission and $50,000 awarded to the second place finisher.

The third-place prize will be a subscription to Microsoft services worth $10,000.

BlueHat winners will be revealed at the Black Hat gathering in Las Vegas next year. Information about the contest was available online at bluehatprize.com.

US training mission in Iraq faces hurdles: experts

BAGHDAD, August 4, 2011 (AFP) - Iraq may have announced a willingness to hold talks with the US over a military training mission beyond 2011, but any such deal still faces popular opposition and political hurdles, analysts say.

On Wednesday Iraqi leaders said they would open negotiations with Washington over keeping a contingent of US forces in Iraq to train domestic security forces, after months of appeals from American officials for Baghdad to make a decision.

The agreement came after an hours-long closed door meeting hosted by President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, with political leaders largely agreeing to open the talks, except for representatives of radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary movement.

The decision is a key first step, but any final deal still needs to resolve contentious details such as the size of the US force, the duration of its stay and whether its members would enjoy immunity from prosecution.

But while the Sadrists are alone in their open opposition, none of the Iraqi leadership wants to be seen as responsible for an extension of the US presence, which is deeply unpopular, said Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

"The decision will be hugely divisive, and I suspect this is part of the reason the executive and the legislative were so happy to leave it to each other to make it," Saffar said.

"Many of Iraq's main political parties would welcome an extension of the US troop presence as they see them as being a guarantor of at least a semblance of security. However, none will come out publicly to declare this stance as it will be perceived by many Iraqis as being unpatriotic."

He said that if Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decides on a continuation of the US presence, "he will jeopardise his alliance with the Sadrists," who could withdraw their ministers and put the fragile national unity government at risk.

Approximately 47,000 US troops are currently stationed in Iraq, all of whom must leave by the end of the year under the terms of a bilateral security pact signed in 2008, which remains in force if a deal for a training mission is ultimately not agreed.

Joost Hiltermann, a Washington-based Iraq specialist and Middle East and north Africa deputy programme director for the International Crisis Group, said the agreement to hold talks was just a move to defer the main decision, in the hope that resistance to a continued US troop presence fades.

"This is a way of kicking the ball down the lane, hoping that with time, any resistance from Sadrists and others can be overcome or at least marginalised," Hiltermann said.

"It is the most Washington seems to be able to extract at this time."

Reidar Visser, an Iraq specialist and editor of the gulfanalysis.wordpress.com blog, said any agreement permitting a post-2011 US training mission would likely place strict limitations on American forces.

"Any use of the US forces that goes beyond what can plausibly be described as 'instruction' leaves them potentially vulnerable to criticism and indeed attacks from Sadrists and others," Visser said, adding that "retaining regular bases would be exceedingly difficult."

US and Iraqi military officials assess Iraq's security forces to be capable of maintaining internal security, the country is lacking in terms of defending its borders, airspace and territorial waters.

"Certainly we need training forces; we have contracts to import weapons from the United States and we need trainers for this," said Ali Mussawi, media advisor to Maliki.

"We are rebuilding our military right now so we need trainers for all the units."

Baghdad has restarted talks with the United States on the purchase of 36 American F-16 fighter jets, double the figure that had originally been mooted.

Iraq and the US had been close to a final agreement on the F-16s deal earlier this year, but nationwide protests forced the Baghdad government to divert funds earmarked for the war planes to programmes to help the poor.

Over the weekend, the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, warned in a report that the country was less safe than one year ago and that security was deteriorating.

Saffar said that an extension of the US presence could cause a short-term increase in attacks on American troops, but would likely aid long-term stability.

"The short-term effect will likely be an uptick in attacks on foreign troops, which we have already seen since the beginning of the year, but which will accelerate," he said.

"In the longer term, however, the training of the armed services should result in an increasingly competent force which will be more able to control the security situation throughout the country."

Time Inc. to put full magazine portfolio on tablets

WASHINGTON, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - US magazine publisher Time Inc. said Wednesday it will produce versions of all of its 21 US titles for tablet computers by the end of the year.

Time Inc., a division of US media and entertainment giant Time Warner, is already producing tablet editions of Time, its flagship news magazine, Sports Illustrated, People and Fortune.

Other Time Inc. titles include InStyle, Real Simple and Entertainment Weekly.

"In the coming year, there will clearly be many more consumers using tablets, accelerating demand for content and driving advertiser interest," Time Inc. executive vice president Maurice Edelson said in a statement.

"Having our entire portfolio available on tablets will create a significant new digital reach for our advertisers," Edelson said.

Time Inc. said the company's digital magazine and other content applications have been downloaded more than 11 million times.

It said print magazine subscribers will be able to upgrade their subscriptions to include digital editions at no additional cost.

Time Inc. also said it has reached agreement with Barnes & Noble to sell digital subscriptions and single-copy issues of Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated and Time on the US bookseller's Nook Color electronic reader.

Time Inc.'s parent company Time Warner said Wednesday that net profit rose to $638 million in the second quarter from $562 million a year ago. Revenue was up 10 percent to $7.0 billion.

2011/08/03

Ban turtle eggs trade in Malaysia: WWF

KUALA LUMPUR, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - Conservationists Wednesday urged Malaysia to impose a national ban on the trade and consumption of turtle eggs to ensure the survival of the marine creatures.

Turtles once arrived in their thousands to lay eggs on Malaysian beaches but are now increasingly rare due to poaching and coastal development.

"WWF-Malaysia continues its call for a comprehensive ban on the consumption and trade of turtle eggs of all marine turtle species to ensure the survival of these majestic creatures," Environmental group WWF-Malaysia said in statement.

With no national ban on eating turtle eggs, they are sold openly in eastern Terengganu state where only the sale of leatherback turtle eggs is not permitted, the group said.

Turtle eggs are are also available elsewhere in the country.

WWF said contrary to popular belief most people consider the eggs a "delicacy" and eat them for pleasure, not as a source of protein or for their reputed medicinal or aphrodisiac effects.

Ban turtle eggs trade in Malaysia: WWF

KUALA LUMPUR, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - Conservationists Wednesday urged Malaysia to impose a national ban on the trade and consumption of turtle eggs to ensure the survival of the marine creatures.

Turtles once arrived in their thousands to lay eggs on Malaysian beaches but are now increasingly rare due to poaching and coastal development.

"WWF-Malaysia continues its call for a comprehensive ban on the consumption and trade of turtle eggs of all marine turtle species to ensure the survival of these majestic creatures," Environmental group WWF-Malaysia said in statement.

With no national ban on eating turtle eggs, they are sold openly in eastern Terengganu state where only the sale of leatherback turtle eggs is not permitted, the group said.

Turtle eggs are are also available elsewhere in the country.

WWF said contrary to popular belief most people consider the eggs a "delicacy" and eat them for pleasure, not as a source of protein or for their reputed medicinal or aphrodisiac effects.

Missing migrant workers hunted down in Singapore

SINGAPORE, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - The man with his right arm draped casually over Mohammad's shoulders as they walk out of a metro station could be mistaken for the Bangladeshi guest worker's best buddy.

But V. Balakrishnan has been hired to track him down and ship him home -- and the smiling Mohammad suddenly bolts, dropping a small bag of possessions and kicking away his flip-flops in his haste to escape.

Watching Mohammad's bright red shirt rapidly disappearing into the distance Balakrishnan says: "See, I told you he surely run."

Balakrishnan works for UTR Services, a company hired by employers to find and repatriate foreign workers who are reported missing or who are no longer needed by the companies that sponsored their visas.

Under Singapore law, employers are responsible for repatriating guest workers whose contracts lapse or are terminated.

Balakrishnan and his partner traced Mohammad's whereabouts and staked out his forest hideout near Singapore's border with Malaysia for five days, only to lose him in the end.

Labour-starved and densely populated Singapore employs around 900,000 guest workers like Mohammad and has strict laws against those staying beyond their allotted time, generating business for repatriation companies like UTR Services.

Such firms, which get paid around Sg$250 ($200) per case, have drawn criticism from human rights groups who accuse them of resorting to unsavoury methods to force workers to board flights home.

"Repatriation companies use force, violence and illegally confine workers against their will," said Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

"The workers are usually seized and locked up at the repatriation company's premises against their will... this is kidnapping and wrongful confinement, and can be classified as penal code offences, which are offences against the law."

Wham said some foreign workers had gone to HOME for help.

"The repatriation company men are careful not to leave any visible injuries on the workers to avoid any possible investigation by the police. Men from the repatriation companies also threaten and verbally abuse the workers into agreeing to leave," he added.

The alleged abuses committed by Singapore repatriation firms were mentioned in a US State Department global report on Trafficking In Persons (TIP) issued in June.

The US report said some employers use the firms "to prevent workers from complaining of abuses, including conditions of forced labor, or seeking redress through the Ministry of Manpower".

The Singapore government has slammed the report, saying in a statement that it "does not tolerate the wrongful confinement of workers or their forceful repatriation without settling of salaries and other legitimate claims".

A police spokesman said that "if any reports are lodged against such companies, the police will look into the matter to establish if any offence has been committed and take action accordingly".

UTR Services director J. Ravi also denied any use of force by his staff.

"It's not like what people say," he told AFP. "There's no force, no nothing."

Ravi maintained that 85 percent of the 2,000 workers he sends back annually voluntarily agree to be repatriated.

But he conceded that the practice of "lodging" foreign workers in the offices of repatriation firms and barring them from leaving unescorted was "a little bit controversial" and he was looking into abolishing the practice.

As for unscrupulous employers, Ravi said his staff check for any signs of physical injury on workers brought in for repatriation and will refer suspected abuse cases to the manpower ministry.

"The law states very clearly, the employer has the right to terminate... You terminate the permit, I send back the worker for you."

A senior official of the manpower ministry said it responded to only two complaints of illegal confinement by repatriation companies in 2010.

But HOME's Wham said forced repatriation happens daily.

"Migrant workers are perceived as social problems and potential immigration offenders and the authorities are happy that repatriation companies can perform this function for them," Wham said.

Malaysian TV removes Ramadan ads amid 'racism' complaint

KUALA LUMPUR, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - A Malaysian television station said it had axed commercials to mark the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan after viewers denounced them as being racist against the country's Chinese minority.

The advertisements, which began airing on Monday at the start of Ramadan, depicted an ethnic Chinese girl, dressed in a tight and sleeveless dress, talking loudly and eating in public.

They ended with a message urging viewers to refrain from such behaviour, considered inappropriate during Ramadan.

The private station that aired the commercials, 8TV, pulled them on Tuesday after its Facebook page was flooded with angry comments denouncing the advertisements as racist.

"Ok guys. We're pulling out the ads. Thank you very much for your concern," 8TV chief executive Ahmad Izham Omar said on a message on microblogging site Twitter late on Tuesday.

Religion and language are sensitive issues in Malaysia, a multiracial society that experienced deadly race riots in 1969.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Muslim Malays, who  live alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities that complain the country is being "Islamised".

World markets slump on growth fears, gold hits high

LONDON, August 3, 2011 (AFP) - World stock markets tumbled on Wednesday as relief over a US debt deal gave way to renewed fears about weakening economic growth, sending 'safe-haven' gold to fresh record highs.

Analysts said that a resurgence in concerns that the eurozone debt crisis remains a real threat to Italy and Spain added to the negative tone after days of sustained and heavy losses.

"It is clear that despite strides to address the debt problems of both the US and Europe, uncertainty persists," said Juliet Tennent, an economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin.

"The fear is that US austerity measures will provide another headwind to already sluggish economic growth ... Meanwhile, despite numerous attempts the European authorities have still not done enough to satisfy a sceptical bond market and the (eurozone) debt crisis looks far from over."

In early European trade, London's benchmark FTSE 100 index shed 1.10 percent, Frankfurt lost 0.80 percent, Paris fell 0.86 percent -- but Madrid was up 0.28 percent in a modest technical rebound after recent sharp losses there.

On the forex markets, the euro was higher at $1.4235 while gold hit a record $1,672.95 an ounce.

"Traders continue to recycle funds out of risky asset classes such as mining, oil and banking stocks, and move these funds into the typical safe haven asset plays such as gold," said Joshua Raymond, chief market strategist at City Index traders.

European peripheral nations "also saw bond yields continue to rise as fears grew over potential contagion of sovereign debt with both Italian and Spanish 10-year bond yields remaining stubbornly above the 6.0 percent mark."

Investors were selling the government debt amid slowing economic growth in Italy, the third-biggest eurozone economy, and fourth-biggest Spain in a crisis that could ultimately threaten the euro.

Across the Atlantic, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed an emergency austerity bill that averted a debt default for the world's biggest economy.

Asian stock markets plunged on Wednesday, with Tokyo dropping 2.11 percent, Sydney losing 2.27 percent and Seoul giving up 2.59 percent.

The red numbers in Asia followed similar losses on Wall Street, where markets fell for an eighth straight session on Tuesday, the longest losing streak since the beginning of the global financial crisis in October 2008.

The Dow sank 2.19 percent, the S&P 500 retreated 2.56 percent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq declined 2.75 percent.

The Nasdaq and S&P 500 both closed below where they started the year while the Dow is at its lowest since mid-March.

Investors were unmoved by news that both Moody's Investors Service and Fitch affirmed the US's top-notch credit rating after the 11th-hour deal to avert a default, looking more to warnings about a possible rating downgrade if Washington does not deliver more.

As US default fears lifted, attention turned to the economic outlook and traders were spooked, with a report showing US consumer spending declined in June, the first drop in nearly two years, suggesting the economy is stalling.

That followed data showing manufacturing virtually stationary in the United States as well as across Europe and Asia.

Internet a windfall for Australian economy

SYDNEY, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - The Internet now accounts for 3.6 percent of Australia's economic growth, rivalling the retail sector in value or worth about half the country's lucrative mining exports, a study reported Wednesday.

The Deloitte/Access Economics study said the Internet contributed Aus$50 billion (US$53 billion) to Australia's gross domestic product in 2010, as much as the retail and education sectors and more than agriculture and fishing.

Though only half as valuable as the key mining sector, which contributed Aus$100 billion to GDP in 2010, the Internet was already worth as much as the iron ore industry -- a major economic driver fueled by Asia's steel mills.

By 2016 the Internet's contribution to GDP was expected to be Aus$70 billion, with annual growth of about seven percent -- double the predicted growth rate for the national economy -- the report said.

"The Connected Continent" study was commissioned by Google, and the online giant's Australian director, Nick Leeder, said it was the first such stocktake of the Internet's value in the mining-driven country.

It found that Internet use had doubled in Australia in the past four years and the number of connected households was expected to increase 20 percent by 2016.

The Internet's contribution to GDP was measured by tallying the amount spent by consumers, businesses, government and overseas residents on Internet-related goods and services that were produced in Australia.

Separately, the Internet directly employed 190,000 Australians, generating Aus$22 billion last year, the report found.

The Internet's value in Australia was on a par with France, above Italy, Spain and Russia, but below Britain, Sweden and Hong Kong, according to the study.

Ric Simes, leader of the study, said the Internet was fundamentally transforming the way business was done, with almost every Australian company and government agency having an online presence.

"The Internet is having a profound effect on how the economy and society works in many ways that we don’t fully yet understand," said Simes.

Australia's finance and real estate agencies were leading the online charge but primary industries such as farming and mining were also enthusiastic adopters of the Internet, according to the study.

Internet a windfall for Australian economy

SYDNEY, August  3, 2011 (AFP) - The Internet now accounts for 3.6 percent of Australia's economic growth, rivalling the retail sector in value or worth about half the country's lucrative mining exports, a study reported Wednesday.

The Deloitte/Access Economics study said the Internet contributed Aus$50 billion (US$53 billion) to Australia's gross domestic product in 2010, as much as the retail and education sectors and more than agriculture and fishing.

Though only half as valuable as the key mining sector, which contributed Aus$100 billion to GDP in 2010, the Internet was already worth as much as the iron ore industry -- a major economic driver fueled by Asia's steel mills.

By 2016 the Internet's contribution to GDP was expected to be Aus$70 billion, with annual growth of about seven percent -- double the predicted growth rate for the national economy -- the report said.

"The Connected Continent" study was commissioned by Google, and the online giant's Australian director, Nick Leeder, said it was the first such stocktake of the Internet's value in the mining-driven country.

It found that Internet use had doubled in Australia in the past four years and the number of connected households was expected to increase 20 percent by 2016.

The Internet's contribution to GDP was measured by tallying the amount spent by consumers, businesses, government and overseas residents on Internet-related goods and services that were produced in Australia.

Separately, the Internet directly employed 190,000 Australians, generating Aus$22 billion last year, the report found.

The Internet's value in Australia was on a par with France, above Italy, Spain and Russia, but below Britain, Sweden and Hong Kong, according to the study.

Ric Simes, leader of the study, said the Internet was fundamentally transforming the way business was done, with almost every Australian company and government agency having an online presence.

"The Internet is having a profound effect on how the economy and society works in many ways that we don’t fully yet understand," said Simes.

Australia's finance and real estate agencies were leading the online charge but primary industries such as farming and mining were also enthusiastic adopters of the Internet, according to the study.

2011/08/02

European wind power output tipped to treble by 2020: report

BRUSSELS, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Energy producers expect European wind power generation to triple by 2020, with tens of thousands of new, ever-bigger wind turbines springing up, an industry body said Tuesday.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), which groups energy giants with wind interests and also many involved in nuclear or gas-fired electricity generation, released its figures in a new report aiming to influence EU energy policy after 2020.

By the end of last year, the 'Pure Power' report said, wind power produced about 5.3 percent of demand across the EU's 27 states, some 182 Terawatt hours (TWh). Its share is tipped to reach 15.7 percent by 2020, or 581 TWh.

By the end of 2010, there were more than 70,000 turbines in operation, and the EWEA says 60,000 more of the same size would be needed to meet 2020 targets, although installing bigger machines could reduce the number to half or less depending on technology developments.

Investment is tipped to rise from 12.7 billion euros ($18 billion) of annual investment in 2010 to 26.6 billion euros in 2020, 40 percent of that investment going into offshore wind farms.

Justin Wilkes of the EWEA said companies would invest 194 billion euros in onshore and, increasingly, offshore wind farms by then, "mainly driven by a strong EU regulatory framework to 2020, which we need also after 2020."

His grouping wants binding European Union targets for renewable energy production -- part of wider climate-action commitments -- to be extended from the present 19 percent to 34 percent for the decade after 2020.

EU states have been increasingly reluctant since the deep recession of the recent years to set binding European-level targets affecting domestic investment needs.

Germany and Spain alone account for well over half of all EU wind power, but Britain, France, Italy and Portugal are also emerging alongside small, but market-leading Denmark -- despite strong Paris adherence to its giant nuclear industry, which delivers 80 percent of France's electricity needs.

Scotland, whose independence-seeking government in Edinburgh is already committed to producing 100 percent of its energy needs from renewables, exporting its traditional oil and gas output, alone claims one quarter of the EU's coastline.

Germany has turned its back on nuclear after an earthquake and tsunami caused an accident at a nuclear plant in Japan in March, and the EWEA says Berlin could fill the 20-percent gap in its generating capacity with wind within a decade.

The report can be accessed online at: http://www.ewea.org/fileadmin/ewea_documents/documents/publications/reports/Pure_Power_III.pdf

Philippines will seek oil in South China Sea

MANILA, August  2, 2011 (AFP) - The Philippines plans to auction off areas of the South China Sea for oil exploration, despite worsening territorial disputes with China over the area, an official said Tuesday.

Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug said several foreign firms, including China's state-owned CNOOC Ltd., had already expressed interest in drilling in waters off the western Philippine island of Palawan.

The areas set for exploration are far from the disputed Spratly islands and well within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, he said on the sidelines of an energy conference in Manila.

"These are not disputed areas. The area we are offering for bidding is definitely within the territory of the Republic of the Philippines."

However, China is known to claim most of the South China Sea, including areas the Philippines says are clearly Filipino territory.

Aside from CNOOC, two other Chinese firms are among those interested in contracts to drill in the area, Layug said without naming the other two.

The Philippines is to name the winning bidders next year, Layug said.

He expressed confidence the Chinese would not try to harass Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration vessels there.

"These areas are near Palawan which means they (winning bidders) will have to come to the Philippines to do it," he said.

Tensions have risen in recent months, with countries in the region claiming China has been more aggressive in enforcing its claims on parts of the South China Sea.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to all or parts of the sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Last February, two Chinese vessels allegedly harassed a Filipino-commissioned exploration vessel off Reed Bank, an islet north of the Spratlys.

The Philippines has also accused Chinese forces of shooting at Filipino fishermen and placing markers on some of the islets.

The Reed Bank, which Manila calls "Recto Bank" and is also claimed by China, is 273 kilometres (170 miles) from Palawan.

Philippine officials said Manila had authorised drilling in that area before without any Chinese opposition.

Philippines will seek oil in South China Sea

MANILA, August  2, 2011 (AFP) - The Philippines plans to auction off areas of the South China Sea for oil exploration, despite worsening territorial disputes with China over the area, an official said Tuesday.

Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug said several foreign firms, including China's state-owned CNOOC Ltd., had already expressed interest in drilling in waters off the western Philippine island of Palawan.

The areas set for exploration are far from the disputed Spratly islands and well within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, he said on the sidelines of an energy conference in Manila.

"These are not disputed areas. The area we are offering for bidding is definitely within the territory of the Republic of the Philippines."

However, China is known to claim most of the South China Sea, including areas the Philippines says are clearly Filipino territory.

Aside from CNOOC, two other Chinese firms are among those interested in contracts to drill in the area, Layug said without naming the other two.

The Philippines is to name the winning bidders next year, Layug said.

He expressed confidence the Chinese would not try to harass Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration vessels there.

"These areas are near Palawan which means they (winning bidders) will have to come to the Philippines to do it," he said.

Tensions have risen in recent months, with countries in the region claiming China has been more aggressive in enforcing its claims on parts of the South China Sea.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to all or parts of the sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Last February, two Chinese vessels allegedly harassed a Filipino-commissioned exploration vessel off Reed Bank, an islet north of the Spratlys.

The Philippines has also accused Chinese forces of shooting at Filipino fishermen and placing markers on some of the islets.

The Reed Bank, which Manila calls "Recto Bank" and is also claimed by China, is 273 kilometres (170 miles) from Palawan.

Philippine officials said Manila had authorised drilling in that area before without any Chinese opposition.

Migrants to China's northwest live in fear

KASHGAR, August  2, 2011 (AFP) - Chinese migrants who have flocked to the country's far northwest lured by government policies to enrich the region say ethnic violence has made them fear for their lives -- and their livelihoods.

Twenty-one people have been killed in the famed ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in the latest explosion of violence to hit the resource-rich Xinjiang region, with authorities blaming members of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority.

The violence has again highlighted deep ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, home to around nine million Uighurs who say rapid economic growth unfairly benefits immigrants from China's majority Han ethnic group, leaving them marginalised.

But many Han Chinese also feel as if they are victims.

"It's too disorderly outside, it's not safe," said Zhang Ming, one of many whose move to Xinjiang -- part of plans to develop the poorer west -- has sparked tensions with local Uighurs.

The 34-year-old recently left her home in central China to open a restaurant thousands of kilometres (miles) away in Kashgar, lured by the prospect of making money in the fast-growing but restive city.

But she is worried about the prospects for her restaurant -- due to open next week -- after knife-wielding assailants killed eight bystanders at a nearby food market on Saturday.

"There's no business now as a result," she told AFP as she sat surrounded by restaurants shuttered up after the violence.

"I'm hoping it won't be long before things get back to normal, as we're due to open the restaurant next week."

A 32-year-old bed maker surnamed Ye said he moved to Kashgar from the northern city of Xian seven years ago, attracted by government plans to develop the region, and has since watched ethnic tensions steadily worsen.

"These incidents have happened before here, but never so close to home," said Ye, who lives near the scene of Saturday's attack at the food market.

"When I first got here, things were much better. But the situation has got worse, particularly in the past few years."

Zhang Tigang, the manager of a big outdoor market in Kashgar, said many small business owners who were from other parts of China had fled home since the attacks.

"They're waiting for the government to say the situation is calm again before they come back," Zhang told AFP.

Of the 21 people killed in Kashgar since Saturday, 13 were civilians and eight were alleged attackers. Two of the suspects were shot dead by police late Monday as they tried to flee.

It was the worst violence to hit Kashgar since 2008, when two Uighur attackers ploughed a truck into a group of jogging police officers and then launched machete attacks, killing 16.

Then in 2009, the government said about 200 people were killed in clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the regional capital of Urumqi.

China says much of the Xinjiang unrest has been masterminded by overseas, "separatist" forces, and on Monday it blamed Muslim "terrorists" trained in neighbouring Pakistan for some of the weekend violence in Kashgar.

But some experts say there is little evidence to show an organised, dangerous opposition exists in Xinjiang, and that the government is unwilling to see the unrest within its borders as stemming from oppression.

One Uighur man interviewed by AFP in Kashgar expressed the deep frustrations that critics of Chinese authorities say they refuse to acknowledge.

"Look at the Han and the Uighurs -- who is rich and who is poor?" said the man, aged in his 20s, whom AFP did not identify due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"Some Uighurs go to university in Urumqi, they graduate, come back and can't find jobs. These all go to the Han. And even when they do find jobs, their salaries are low."

As the region develops, Kashgar is getting a huge facelift. Modern buildings -- the likes of which are seen in every city in China -- are springing up all over Kashgar as authorities tear down much of the old Uighur quarter.

A model of what Kashgar will look like in the future -- at an exhibition dedicated to its designation as a special economic zone -- shows an ever-expanding sea of high rises surrounding a small remnant of the old city.

After the weekend attacks Rebiya Kadeer, the US-based president of the World Uighur Congress, said Uighurs had been "pushed to despair by Chinese policies".

"Regardless of the dangers posed to those who do dissent, Uighurs continue to express their unhappiness with Chinese policies; however, Chinese authorities have not heeded any of these expressions of discontent," she said.

Foreign journalists covering the aftermath of the violence in Kashgar were Tuesday operating under strict official reporting limits, with some barred from interviewing people without prior authorisation.

Migrants to China's northwest live in fear

KASHGAR, August  2, 2011 (AFP) - Chinese migrants who have flocked to the country's far northwest lured by government policies to enrich the region say ethnic violence has made them fear for their lives -- and their livelihoods.

Twenty-one people have been killed in the famed ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in the latest explosion of violence to hit the resource-rich Xinjiang region, with authorities blaming members of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority.

The violence has again highlighted deep ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, home to around nine million Uighurs who say rapid economic growth unfairly benefits immigrants from China's majority Han ethnic group, leaving them marginalised.

But many Han Chinese also feel as if they are victims.

"It's too disorderly outside, it's not safe," said Zhang Ming, one of many whose move to Xinjiang -- part of plans to develop the poorer west -- has sparked tensions with local Uighurs.

The 34-year-old recently left her home in central China to open a restaurant thousands of kilometres (miles) away in Kashgar, lured by the prospect of making money in the fast-growing but restive city.

But she is worried about the prospects for her restaurant -- due to open next week -- after knife-wielding assailants killed eight bystanders at a nearby food market on Saturday.

"There's no business now as a result," she told AFP as she sat surrounded by restaurants shuttered up after the violence.

"I'm hoping it won't be long before things get back to normal, as we're due to open the restaurant next week."

A 32-year-old bed maker surnamed Ye said he moved to Kashgar from the northern city of Xian seven years ago, attracted by government plans to develop the region, and has since watched ethnic tensions steadily worsen.

"These incidents have happened before here, but never so close to home," said Ye, who lives near the scene of Saturday's attack at the food market.

"When I first got here, things were much better. But the situation has got worse, particularly in the past few years."

Zhang Tigang, the manager of a big outdoor market in Kashgar, said many small business owners who were from other parts of China had fled home since the attacks.

"They're waiting for the government to say the situation is calm again before they come back," Zhang told AFP.

Of the 21 people killed in Kashgar since Saturday, 13 were civilians and eight were alleged attackers. Two of the suspects were shot dead by police late Monday as they tried to flee.

It was the worst violence to hit Kashgar since 2008, when two Uighur attackers ploughed a truck into a group of jogging police officers and then launched machete attacks, killing 16.

Then in 2009, the government said about 200 people were killed in clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the regional capital of Urumqi.

China says much of the Xinjiang unrest has been masterminded by overseas, "separatist" forces, and on Monday it blamed Muslim "terrorists" trained in neighbouring Pakistan for some of the weekend violence in Kashgar.

But some experts say there is little evidence to show an organised, dangerous opposition exists in Xinjiang, and that the government is unwilling to see the unrest within its borders as stemming from oppression.

One Uighur man interviewed by AFP in Kashgar expressed the deep frustrations that critics of Chinese authorities say they refuse to acknowledge.

"Look at the Han and the Uighurs -- who is rich and who is poor?" said the man, aged in his 20s, whom AFP did not identify due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"Some Uighurs go to university in Urumqi, they graduate, come back and can't find jobs. These all go to the Han. And even when they do find jobs, their salaries are low."

As the region develops, Kashgar is getting a huge facelift. Modern buildings -- the likes of which are seen in every city in China -- are springing up all over Kashgar as authorities tear down much of the old Uighur quarter.

A model of what Kashgar will look like in the future -- at an exhibition dedicated to its designation as a special economic zone -- shows an ever-expanding sea of high rises surrounding a small remnant of the old city.

After the weekend attacks Rebiya Kadeer, the US-based president of the World Uighur Congress, said Uighurs had been "pushed to despair by Chinese policies".

"Regardless of the dangers posed to those who do dissent, Uighurs continue to express their unhappiness with Chinese policies; however, Chinese authorities have not heeded any of these expressions of discontent," she said.

Foreign journalists covering the aftermath of the violence in Kashgar were Tuesday operating under strict official reporting limits, with some barred from interviewing people without prior authorisation.

Australia YouTube clips to frighten off asylum-seekers

SYDNEY, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Australia said Tuesday it will film the first group of boat people being sent to Malaysia under its new refugee swap deal and post the video on YouTube to discourage others from making the dangerous trip.

The move comes after the two countries last week signed a controversial pact under which 800 boat people will be sent to Malaysia from Australia, which in return will resettle 4,000 refugees processed by Kuala Lumpur.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said posting the videos online would send a powerful message to people-smugglers and their customers that if they attempt the voyage to Australia they will end up in Malaysia.

"We know that people-smugglers tell lies, we know that people-smugglers will be out there saying, 'Look, this won't apply to you' ... because they are desperate to make money off desperate people," he told ABC radio.

"And we think it's only fair to show very clearly the government's new policies in operation.

"Now, of course we'll have people's identities respected and we'll have appropriate videos posted, but it will be very clear that measures have been taken and this new policy is in operation."

The asylum-seekers will be filmed as they are moved from Australia's remote Christmas Island detention centre to board a plane to Malaysia and check into accommodation in the Southeast Asian nation.

Most of those arriving in Australia on rickety wooden fishing boats are from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, but Bowen insisted potential boat people would have access to social media to see the videos.

"We know that many asylum-seekers throughout the region do follow closely what's happening in Australia; they follow closely announcements of policy changes and they are watching this arrangement quite closely," he said.

"So yes, I do think that many people would have access to that sort of social media and word-of-mouth will spread quickly from those who do have that access to those who don't."

The first boatload earmarked for Malaysia, with 54 people on board, arrived on Sunday and was heading to Christmas Island to be processed.

Campaign groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have opposed the Malaysia deal, accusing Australia of dodging its duties to boat people and ignoring their human rights by sending them to a country that is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees.

Antarctic-South Pole trek for Aussie adventurers

SYDNEY, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Two Australian adventurers said Tuesday they planned to attempt a new world record by walking from the edge of the Antarctic to the South Pole and back again.

James Castrission, 29, and Justin Jones, 28 will make the trek in October to coincide with the 100-year centenary of Scott and Amundsen's famous race to the pole in 1911.

The pair, who created history in 2008 when they became the first people to kayak from Australia to New Zealand, will transport everything they need to survive the three-month endurance test in two 160-kilogramme (352-pound) sleds.

It will involve them having to drag the load over 2,200 kilometres (1,364 miles) through one of the Earth's harshest environments.

"The Tasman was just a warm-up as Antarctica is going to be far more demanding, both physically and mentally," Castrission said, adding that they planned to raise funds for children with cancer.

"The ever-present risk of yawning crevasses, piercing cold, hypothermia and frostbite are challenges we will need to deal with on a daily basis.

"Although we're pushing our bodies to the limit, we know that our challenge is nothing in comparison to the journey that young Aussies with cancer have so we want to share our story and raise these funds in a spirit of solidarity."

Some 58 people have managed to walk to the South Pole, but none have done it there and back, according to the adventurers.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole in December 1911.

The rival party led by Britain's Robert Scott arrived at the South Pole shortly after Amundsen, but he and his team members died on the return journey.

ADB warns of bumpy road into 'Asian century'

TOKYO, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Asia could be as wealthy as Europe by mid-century, but only if it tackles key challenges from inequality and corruption to climate change, an Asian Development Bank study said Tuesday.

On current trends, Asia will make up half the world's economic output by 2050, and another three billion people will have joined the ranks of the affluent, their incomes matching those of Europe today, said the report.

But the ADB study also pointed to a paradox -- the fact that the world's fastest-growing region, dubbed "Factory Asia", is still home to almost half the world's absolute poor, who earn less than $1.25 a day.

Asia's decades-long march to prosperity, the study said, is being led by seven economies with more than three billion people between them -- China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia.

Under the best-case scenario, Asia's combined GDP -- also including poorer nations such as Laos and Pakistan -- will rise from $17 trillion last year to $174 trillion in 2050, with per capita GDP of $40,800 in current terms.

But in order for Asia's rise to be sustainable, the study warns, the diverse region must emulate the past successes of top performers Japan, South Korea and Singapore by promoting inclusive and equitable growth.

"Asia is in the midst of a historic transformation," said the report, "Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century", commissioned by the Manila-based ADB and launched by its president Haruhiko Kuroda in Tokyo.

Kuroda pointed out that developing Asia has led the way out of the global financial crisis and recession with a V-shaped recovery.

On current trends, the study said, "by 2050 its per capita income could rise sixfold in purchasing power parity terms to reach Europe’s levels today. It would make some three billion additional Asians affluent by current standards.

"By nearly doubling its share of global gross domestic product to 52 percent by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution."

However, the study warned that Asia's rise is by no means inevitable.

"Many see the ascendancy of Asia -- or 'the Asian Century' -- as being on autopilot, with the region gliding smoothly to its rightful place in destiny," wrote Kuroda in a foreword to the report.

"But complacency would be a mistake. While an Asian century is certainly plausible, it is not preordained."

The report warned that emerging economies face the risk of being stuck in the "middle-income trap" as bursts of rapid growth, driven by export-based manufacturing, are followed by periods of stagnation or decline.

The report highlights other key challenges -- rising inequality within and between countries, poor governance and corruption in many of them, and intensifying regional competition for finite natural resources.

In the worst case, it warned, Asia could face "a perfect storm" of bad macro-economic policies, unchecked financial sector exuberance, conflict, climate change, natural disasters, changing demography and weak governance.

To make Asian growth sustainable, the study said, its countries must address poverty, equality of access and opportunity, and focus on education, entrepreneurship, innovation and technological development.

Climate change is "a wild card for Asian development", warned the study, which stressed that Asia is already hit by more storms, floods and other natural disasters than any other region.

Global warming threatens to melt the glaciers that run from the Himalayas and other mountain ranges to feed Asia's major rivers, which provide water, food, fish and power for 2.8 billion people, it said.

"Climate change will affect everyone. With over half the world's population, Asia has more at stake than any other region," said the study.

"The anticipated affluence of some three billion additional Asians will put tremendous pressure on the earth's finite natural resources.

"Out of self-interest," said the study, Asia "will need to take the lead in radical energy efficiency and diversification programmes by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy."

Launching the report, Kuroda said: "How we handle vital resources such as water and food will determine whether we stay on the path of economic growth and development, or stumble into conflicts of scarcity.

"Asia must take radical steps now toward investing in innovation and clean technology to ensure that our quest for prosperity for all does not end in environmental gridlock."

ADB warns of bumpy road into 'Asian century'

TOKYO, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Asia could be as wealthy as Europe by mid-century, but only if it tackles key challenges from inequality and corruption to climate change, an Asian Development Bank study said Tuesday.

On current trends, Asia will make up half the world's economic output by 2050, and another three billion people will have joined the ranks of the affluent, their incomes matching those of Europe today, said the report.

But the ADB study also pointed to a paradox -- the fact that the world's fastest-growing region, dubbed "Factory Asia", is still home to almost half the world's absolute poor, who earn less than $1.25 a day.

Asia's decades-long march to prosperity, the study said, is being led by seven economies with more than three billion people between them -- China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia.

Under the best-case scenario, Asia's combined GDP -- also including poorer nations such as Laos and Pakistan -- will rise from $17 trillion last year to $174 trillion in 2050, with per capita GDP of $40,800 in current terms.

But in order for Asia's rise to be sustainable, the study warns, the diverse region must emulate the past successes of top performers Japan, South Korea and Singapore by promoting inclusive and equitable growth.

"Asia is in the midst of a historic transformation," said the report, "Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century", commissioned by the Manila-based ADB and launched by its president Haruhiko Kuroda in Tokyo.

Kuroda pointed out that developing Asia has led the way out of the global financial crisis and recession with a V-shaped recovery.

On current trends, the study said, "by 2050 its per capita income could rise sixfold in purchasing power parity terms to reach Europe’s levels today. It would make some three billion additional Asians affluent by current standards.

"By nearly doubling its share of global gross domestic product to 52 percent by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution."

However, the study warned that Asia's rise is by no means inevitable.

"Many see the ascendancy of Asia -- or 'the Asian Century' -- as being on autopilot, with the region gliding smoothly to its rightful place in destiny," wrote Kuroda in a foreword to the report.

"But complacency would be a mistake. While an Asian century is certainly plausible, it is not preordained."

The report warned that emerging economies face the risk of being stuck in the "middle-income trap" as bursts of rapid growth, driven by export-based manufacturing, are followed by periods of stagnation or decline.

The report highlights other key challenges -- rising inequality within and between countries, poor governance and corruption in many of them, and intensifying regional competition for finite natural resources.

In the worst case, it warned, Asia could face "a perfect storm" of bad macro-economic policies, unchecked financial sector exuberance, conflict, climate change, natural disasters, changing demography and weak governance.

To make Asian growth sustainable, the study said, its countries must address poverty, equality of access and opportunity, and focus on education, entrepreneurship, innovation and technological development.

Climate change is "a wild card for Asian development", warned the study, which stressed that Asia is already hit by more storms, floods and other natural disasters than any other region.

Global warming threatens to melt the glaciers that run from the Himalayas and other mountain ranges to feed Asia's major rivers, which provide water, food, fish and power for 2.8 billion people, it said.

"Climate change will affect everyone. With over half the world's population, Asia has more at stake than any other region," said the study.

"The anticipated affluence of some three billion additional Asians will put tremendous pressure on the earth's finite natural resources.

"Out of self-interest," said the study, Asia "will need to take the lead in radical energy efficiency and diversification programmes by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy."

Launching the report, Kuroda said: "How we handle vital resources such as water and food will determine whether we stay on the path of economic growth and development, or stumble into conflicts of scarcity.

"Asia must take radical steps now toward investing in innovation and clean technology to ensure that our quest for prosperity for all does not end in environmental gridlock."

Hong Kong professionals form anti-slavery club

HONG KONG, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong entrepreneur Ken Law runs a successful information technology business, but the bespectacled 35-year-old now has a second job -- anti-slavery activist.

Law is one of dozens of Hong Kong professionals -- lawyers, bankers and IT experts -- who have formed the Mekong Club, a group dedicated to waging a war against human trafficking across Asia.

Billed as the first business-driven group to tackle slavery, the club, which was launched in July, wants to tap top brains in the business world -- with their expertise, skills and contacts -- to help save trafficking victims.

"I remember a trip to China four years ago where I saw many 'professional' beggars -- they were just six, seven-years-old," Law told AFP, from his office in a science and technology park on the city's outskirts.

"I thought to myself they must have been sold into this. Since then I have been thinking how we can help them," said the chief executive of 'MotherApp', which rolls out the latest mobile applications for firms across the globe

Around 26 million people live in slavery globally, with more than nine million of them in Asia, according to United Nations estimates, in a lucrative global trade with profits worth over $30 billion.

Many of the victims are brought from impoverished countries and sold by human traffickers to factories, sweat shops or fishing vessels, while women are forced into the sex trade and children are used as child labour.

"The outcome of trafficking is a situation where a person doesn't get pay, loses control of their lives and that is slavery," said Matthew Friedman, head of the Bangkok-based UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), which mooted the idea of the club.

"The philosophy behind the Mekong Club is we want to change the game. We want to use this brain power in the private sector to tackle human slavery.

"The Mekong Club is the interface between the private sector and the counter-trafficking world, so we want to bring them together," he told AFP during a visit to Hong Kong.

Unlike the official agencies battling slavery, these suit-clad professionals plan to wage their war from Hong Kong's glitzy skyscrapers.

Among the club members, lawyers will use their expertise to tackle slavery court cases, telecom experts will set up cross-border hotlines for victims and bankers will trace traffickers' illicit proceeds.

"I believe there are many ways to help these victims of human slavery. I hope we can play our part," said Law, whose firm has agreed to develop a new mobile application to help victims.

The application, which is being tested, will come in different languages and contains a set of simple questions which aim to break down communication barriers when trafficking victims are rescued by enforcement officers.

UNIAP has long been working with groups like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Labour Organization on human trafficking in six Mekong countries -- China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia

While these groups have been drawing attention to the problem for decades, tapping the business community is a new take on an old problem.

"We are going to ask business to do what they do best every day rather than to change what they do," said Jude Mannion, co-founder of the club and head of a consultancy firm on corporate social responsibility.

"If they are in the IT industry, they are asked what kind of IT system would connect all the countries that have human slavery that could be more powerful in reporting or tracking these cases.

"If it's a telco company, we could ask them to come out with one call line across Asia (to report human trafficking cases)," said Mannion.

UNIAP's Friedman said the response has been encouraging, with some members offering "extremely interesting" ideas about how to tackle the trade.

"Hong Kong has this incredibly glitzy, money, wealthy image but businesses are now given the opportunity on how do we use these skills to change the game for human slavery," said Mannion.

"I think Hong Kong businesses are ready to stand for something."

China state media says US debt deal 'hiding risks'

SHANGHAI, August  2, 2011 (AFP) - State media in China, the largest holder of US debt, on Tuesday chided the United States over a deal to raise its borrowing limit, saying it was hiding "risks and troubles" for the world economy.

The US House of Representatives late Monday approved a package that would slash spending in return for raising the legal limit on US sovereign debt, in a bid to avoid a catastrophic default.

"Although the United States has basically avoided default, its sovereign debt problems remain unresolved," the People's Daily, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary.

"They are just deferred and there is a tendency for them to grow. This is casting a shadow over the recovery of the US economy and hiding even bigger risks and troubles for the global economy," the newspaper said.

China, sitting on the world's biggest foreign exchange reserves of around $3.20 trillion as of the end of June, is the largest holder of US Treasuries.

The debate over the debt ceiling, which the newspaper labelled as a "political fight", would hurt the credibility of US Treasuries though a default was "essentially unlikely", it said.

The last-minute deal revealed the long-term risks to China's massive holdings of US Treasuries, Li Xiangyang, a researcher at the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a separate article in the overseas edition of the People's Daily.

"It is necessary to change the current concentration on US dollar assets, but what is more important is to change the trend of increasing holdings of dollar assets in future. This requires a fundamental adjustment in the economic growth model," Li said.

The official Xinhua news agency chimed in by saying the US remains a "debt economy" and the long-term risks of a default still exist.

The US is very like to let the dollar depreciate to pass off the debt to its creditors, which may cause more flows of speculative funds, or hot money, into emerging economies like China and push up inflation, it said.

"If the US choses to repudiate debt in this hidden manner, it will seriously impact the stable growth of the global economy," Xinhua said.

Israeli planes raid Gaza Strip: Palestinians

GAZA CITY, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Israeli warplanes early Tuesday raided the Gaza Strip, witnesses said.

The air raid targeted a tunnel dug under the border between the south of the Strip and Egypt, near Rafah, the Palestinian witnesses said.

There were no casualties reported in the raid.

Two explosions also shook Gaza City. The source of the blasts was not immediately clear.

An Israeli spokeswoman questioned by AFP declined to confirm or deny the air raid.

A woman was slightly wounded when a rocket fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip crashed into southern Israel late on Monday, an army spokeswoman said earlier.

US company profits surge, even as economy slows

NEW YORK, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Major US companies are packing away record profits even as the economy falters, unemployment remains high and the debt-ceiling crisis has shaken confidence in the country, analysts said.

In July, corporate giants such as 3M, Caterpillar, Goodyear, Microsoft and Apple reported blockbuster results in the second quarter of 2011, though the stock market still slumped amid fears of an economic slowdown and a possible government default.

Of the companies in the S&P 500 list of large-cap firms which have reported their quarterly earnings to date, 72 percent have beaten analysts' forecasts, according to Standard & Poor's analyst Howard Silverblatt.

Moreover, if the current trend keeps up, the S&P 500 companies are poised to have their most profitable quarter ever, he said.

"Earnings are basically the only thing holding up the market at this point," Silverblatt said. "They're amazing numbers."

The prosperity of large corporations may seem surprising at a time when many indicators show profound weakness in the world's largest economy.

The US unemployment rate stands at 9.2 percent, and the government last week said growth in the second quarter was a feeble 1.3 percent, far below economists' expectations.

But analysts say US corporations are doing well in part because they slashed costs during the recession, laying off workers and reining in spending on plants and equipment, which boosted profit margins.

"They got lean and mean," said Marc Pado, US market strategist for Cantor Fitzgerald.

"Corporate America is very strong. They were preparing for a downward turn. Everybody was talking about a double-dip recession and they were bracing for that. They were holding on to cash, not hiring new workers and voiding themselves of inventory."

The total cash held by US non-financial corporations surged to $1.2 trillion at the end of 2010, up 11.2 percent from a year earlier, Moody's Investors Service said in a report last week.

One reason that companies are holding so much cash -- and not spending it on investments or hiring new workers -- is that they are worried about the shaky economic situation in the United States and Europe.

"Management teams remember the rapid shutdown of the financial markets in 2008 and prefer to hold large cash balances even though the money is earning a low return," Moody's said.

Another notable result from the latest round of earnings reports is that many US companies are showing their best results in fast-growing markets such as Asia and Latin America rather than at home.

General Electric, Caterpillar and Dow Chemical were among the US corporate stalwarts which reported strong emerging market sales that helped offset slow growth in the United States in the second quarter.

"Dow's broad geographic reach and leadership in many attractive, high-growth end-markets firmly position us to benefit from the megatrends that are defining our future," Dow Chemical chief executive Andrew Liveris said last week as the company announced a 73.4 percent rise in quarterly profits.

With the weakness of the dollar, which makes American exports cheaper for consumers around the world, that trend is only likely to accelerate in the future, analysts say.

"The big growth is happening outside the US, not inside the US, and you've seen a lot of companies increase their export sales as a percentage of the total," said Cantor's Pado.

Many companies have also offered upbeat forecasts for the second half of the year, a development which has been overlooked by some investors as they focus on the political battle in Washington and the risks of a default.

"Earnings continue to be above expectations. We see a pop up in expectations for the rest of the year. That's the positive story," said Owen Fitzpatrick, head of US equities at Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management.

However, that has been "obviously overwhelmed by the continuing debate in the US over the debt ceiling," he said.

Little economic impact from US debt deal: analysts

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2011 (AFP) - Spending cuts in the new deal to slash the US deficit and raise the borrowing ceiling will not have much immediate effect on the economy -- or the deficit itself, analysts said Monday.

Heralded as a political success that averts the United States being forced to default on its debt, the deal is supposed to cut the country's gaping deficit by $900 billion over 10 years -- or $2.4 trillion, if a second-stage effort works out.

But for fiscal 2012, beginning in October, only $21 billion will be cut from expected spending of up to $3.7 trillion, and only $41 billion the following year.

"The so-called 'immediate' spending cuts of $917 billion do of course not begin this year. And they barely have an impact in 2012 or 2013 either," said Harm Bandholz on UniCredit Bank.

"In a $15 trillion economy, the impact... is negligible," said John Ryding of RDQ Economics.

Fears were that an effort by hardline Republicans to radically pare the country's budget shortfall and accumulated debt could force the near-stalled US economy back into recession.

Instead, though, what significant reductions there was will only come later in the 10-year outlook -- hitting $100 billion a year in 2017 and rising from there.

The deal was struck in 11th hour talks Sunday as the August 2 deadline to raise the country's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling loomed -- with the possibility of defaulting on its debt, or shutting down much of government, the outcome if the talks failed.

"The real meaning (of the deal) is only that we don't have a debt ceiling fiasco in the next few weeks," said Ryding.

"The two things that needed to be done... to have a broad-based tax reform (and) to reform the entitlement programs, they weren't touched as part of this deal," he said.

But any tightening of spending, economists warned, spelled trouble for the economy, which virtually stagnated in the first half of the year, growing at roughly a one percent annualized pace.

With government spending a key economic driver, possible cuts could have forced more layoffs in both the public and private sectors, pressing the 9.2 percent unemployment rate higher.

"Although the impact of these cuts of the next couple of years is likely to be small, there's a more direct relationship between spending and jobs than there is between taxes and jobs," said Henry Blodget of Business Insider, a website of economic and market analysis.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner defended the deal as a long-term positive for the economy.

"This agreement itself on its own doesn't create jobs," Geithner told ABC television.

"What it does is, it avoids doing more damage in the short term, because the president refused to accept the types of deep spending cuts that many in Congress wanted.

"And by locking in some long-term savings it improves the odds over time."

Alex Brill of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said that just removing the uncertainty over increasing the debt ceiling might help the turgid economy.

The political battle "may have been a drag on the over the last few weeks or months," he told AFP.

"But I think that having a resolution to this problem is likely to be a boost for the economy."

At the same time, the deal, many worried, did not go far enough for the country to avoid a historic cut in the country's top AAA debt rating of more than nine decades.

Standard & Poor's had warned in April, and repeated the warning two weeks ago, that Washington needed a "credible" long-term strategy to reduce the deficit to avoid the downgrade, which could push up US borrowing costs, further hurting the economy.

S&P last week said that a $4 trillion reduction plan over 10 years would be credible. At the most optimistic interpretation, the plan the two sides have tentatively agreed achieves about $3 trillion in savings.

"It will save the US government from defaulting on its obligations to pensioners and others. But it does not address the long-term fiscal challenges facing the nation," Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations said of the deal.

US considered tunneling to bin Laden: report

NEW YORK, August  1, 2011 (AFP) - US commanders of the raid on Osama bin Laden considered a more down-to-earth way of entering his compound than swooping in by helicopter, a report said Monday. Tunneling.

The short-lived idea would have avoided ground troops having to sneak through the nearby town of Abbottabad as they penetrated the walled house where the Al-Qaeda leader was hiding, The New Yorker reported.

Planners also had to consider the possibility that their quarry might himself have tunnels ready for an escape.

In the end, though, they determined from satellite photos that the water table was probably just below the surface of the surrounding flat land and that tunneling was highly unlikely to be successful.

A less exotic option for striking bin Laden was to bomb from the sky. The New Yorker article detailed how then secretary of defense Robert Gates preferred a strike by B-2 Spirit bombers to sending in troops.

However, to be sure of destroying the house and any fortified bunker underneath would require such a massive bombardment that it would result in Abbottabad feeling "the equivalent of an earthquake," James Cartwright, the then vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told The New Yorker.

President Barack Obama disliked that idea and said the helicopter raid should go ahead.

The spectacular incursion by the United States into a supposedly allied country's territory and the row over bin Laden's longtime presence there triggered a crisis in US-Pakistani relations.

However, the raid, dubbed Operation Neptune's Spear, was not the first into Pakistan, The New Yorker article said.

Commandos had already been sent up to 12 times into Pakistan on previous occasions, the magazine quoted a special-operations officer close to the bin Laden raid as saying. Most missions were into North and South Waziristan.

Once the plan was decided on, a top priority was to keep it secret from Pakistan.

"There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond," a senior adviser to Obama told the magazine.

US considered tunneling to bin Laden: report

NEW YORK, August  1, 2011 (AFP) - US commanders of the raid on Osama bin Laden considered a more down-to-earth way of entering his compound than swooping in by helicopter, a report said Monday. Tunneling.

The short-lived idea would have avoided ground troops having to sneak through the nearby town of Abbottabad as they penetrated the walled house where the Al-Qaeda leader was hiding, The New Yorker reported.

Planners also had to consider the possibility that their quarry might himself have tunnels ready for an escape.

In the end, though, they determined from satellite photos that the water table was probably just below the surface of the surrounding flat land and that tunneling was highly unlikely to be successful.

A less exotic option for striking bin Laden was to bomb from the sky. The New Yorker article detailed how then secretary of defense Robert Gates preferred a strike by B-2 Spirit bombers to sending in troops.

However, to be sure of destroying the house and any fortified bunker underneath would require such a massive bombardment that it would result in Abbottabad feeling "the equivalent of an earthquake," James Cartwright, the then vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told The New Yorker.

President Barack Obama disliked that idea and said the helicopter raid should go ahead.

The spectacular incursion by the United States into a supposedly allied country's territory and the row over bin Laden's longtime presence there triggered a crisis in US-Pakistani relations.

However, the raid, dubbed Operation Neptune's Spear, was not the first into Pakistan, The New Yorker article said.

Commandos had already been sent up to 12 times into Pakistan on previous occasions, the magazine quoted a special-operations officer close to the bin Laden raid as saying. Most missions were into North and South Waziristan.

Once the plan was decided on, a top priority was to keep it secret from Pakistan.

"There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond," a senior adviser to Obama told the magazine.

Google buys online deal aggregator The Dealmap

WASHINGTON, August  1, 2011 (AFP) - Google, which is offering an online bargain service in three US cities, has acquired The Dealmap, a company that aggregates local deals.

"We are impressed with what The Dealmap team has accomplished and excited to welcome them to Google," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement.

"We've been thrilled with the early success of our commerce offerings, and we think they can help us build even better products and services for consumers and merchants," she said.

Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Google is offering local bargains in New York, Portland and San Francisco in a challenge to online discount star Groupon and the Internet giant plans to expand Google Offers to Austin, Texas, Boston, Denver, Seattle and Washington.

The Dealmap, founded in May 2010, does not offer deals on its own but aggregates various local offers in one place.

It grew to more than two million users during its first year.

"We believe Google provides the ideal platform to help us accelerate our growth and fulfill our mission," The Dealmap said in a blog post.

"We're passionate about helping people save money while having great local experiences, and in Google we've found the perfect partner that shares this passion, as well as our vision and strategy," The Dealmap said.

"We believe that joining Google will help us innovate in new and unexplored areas of commerce," it said.

Google Offers is a rival to Chicago-based Groupon, which offers subscribers online coupons for discounts on a broad range of consumer goods and services.

Groupon, which claims more than 83 million subscribers, rejected a reported $5 billion takeover offer from Google last year and has filed for an initial public offering seeking to raise as much as $750 million.

Facebook has also entered the daily deals space and began offering local bargains to members of the social network in five US cities in April.

Google buys online deal aggregator The Dealmap

WASHINGTON, August  1, 2011 (AFP) - Google, which is offering an online bargain service in three US cities, has acquired The Dealmap, a company that aggregates local deals.

"We are impressed with what The Dealmap team has accomplished and excited to welcome them to Google," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement.

"We've been thrilled with the early success of our commerce offerings, and we think they can help us build even better products and services for consumers and merchants," she said.

Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Google is offering local bargains in New York, Portland and San Francisco in a challenge to online discount star Groupon and the Internet giant plans to expand Google Offers to Austin, Texas, Boston, Denver, Seattle and Washington.

The Dealmap, founded in May 2010, does not offer deals on its own but aggregates various local offers in one place.

It grew to more than two million users during its first year.

"We believe Google provides the ideal platform to help us accelerate our growth and fulfill our mission," The Dealmap said in a blog post.

"We're passionate about helping people save money while having great local experiences, and in Google we've found the perfect partner that shares this passion, as well as our vision and strategy," The Dealmap said.

"We believe that joining Google will help us innovate in new and unexplored areas of commerce," it said.

Google Offers is a rival to Chicago-based Groupon, which offers subscribers online coupons for discounts on a broad range of consumer goods and services.

Groupon, which claims more than 83 million subscribers, rejected a reported $5 billion takeover offer from Google last year and has filed for an initial public offering seeking to raise as much as $750 million.

Facebook has also entered the daily deals space and began offering local bargains to members of the social network in five US cities in April.