Google plots Hurricane Irene with online map

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - Internet giant Google has rolled out an online map tracking the path of Hurricane Irene and providing other useful information about the storm headed for the US east coast.

The map, located at crisislanding.appspot.com, is a product of the Google Crisis Response team, which provides online tools to help with relief efforts following natural disasters.

The map displays three- to five-day forecasts for Hurricane Irene, shows evacuation routes and which coastal areas of the eastern United States are in danger of facing a storm surge.

Besides maps, online tools developed by Google include the "Person Finder," which attempts to locate and reunite victims of earthquakes or other disasters.

Millions of Americans are bracing for Irene, a Category Two hurricane packing 105-mile (165-kilometer) winds, which is expected to slam into North Carolina on Saturday before heading north toward New York.

Hurricanes are rare on the US eastern seaboard, home to more than 65 million people living in a string of densely populated cities from Washington to New York to Boston.

Malaysia recognises Libyan rebel authority

KUALA LUMPUR, August 27, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysia has recognised Libya's rebel authority as longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi's regime is collapsing.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in a statement late Friday that the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country accepted the National Transitional Council (NTC) set up by the rebels who took control of Tripoli this week.

"We are hopeful that the National Transitional Council... will govern the interim administration towards national unity, reconciliation, inclusiveness and reconstruction that would bring lasting peace and stability to Libya and its people," Anifah said.

"To prevent further bloodshed... Malaysia joins other international voices in calling for the Kadhafi forces to submit to the choices of the majority of the Libyan people," he added.

Several Western countries have also recognised the NTC, but the African Union declined Friday to recognise it and instead called for forming an all-inclusive transitional government.

Google's Eric Schmidt attacks British education system

LONDON, August 27, 2011 (AFP) - Google chairman Eric Schmidt has attacked the British education system, saying a failure to appreciate the importance of  computer science was holding the country back in the digital age.

In a lecture at a broadcasting conference in Edinburgh on Friday, the chairman of the Internet giant accused Britons of "throwing away your great computing heritage" by promoting a separation of arts and sciences in education.

"If I may be so impolite, your track record isn't great," he said.

"The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice.

"Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK."

He said he was shocked that computer science was not taught as standard in British schools, adding: "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."

Schmidt also laughed off criticisms that Google was trying to "take over the world" and planned to make television content on a large scale.

"Trust me, if you gave people at Google free rein to produce TV you'd end up with a lot of bad sci-fi," he said.

Schmidt was the first non-broadcaster to give the landmark lecture at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, a major event in British broadcasters' diary.

Prominent figures from the broadcasting world have delivered it in the past, including News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch and his son James.

China's Sina warns bloggers to ignore rumours

BEIJING, August 27, 2011 (AFP) - A popular Twitter-like service in China has contacted millions of users warning them to ignore false reports, in a sign of growing official unease over the rise of social networking sites.

Sina's micro-blogging site Weibo sent at least two messages on Friday to refute rumours, including one that the suspected murderer of a 19-year-old woman had been released on bail because of his father's connections.

Sina said the bloggers who had posted the false reports would have their accounts suspended for one month and would not be able to send messages or be followed during that period.

The notice came after a top Communist Party official visited the offices of Sina and Youku, China's answer to Youtube, and urged Internet companies to stop the spread of "false and harmful information", the Beijing Daily reported Tuesday.

China -- which has the world's largest online population with 485 million users -- constantly strives to exert its control over the Internet, blocking content it deems politically sensitive as part of a vast censorship system.

But the rise of China's weibos -- microblogs similar to Twitter, which is banned by the communist authorities -- has exposed the difficulty of controlling access to information.

During the visit to Sina and Youku, Beijing's Communist Party chief Liu Qi said Internet companies should "ensure the authenticity of information... to create a healthy online media atmosphere", the Beijing Daily report said.

Chinese people are increasingly turning to weibos to vent their anger over government corruption, scandals and disasters in a country where authorities maintain a tight grip on the media.

After a deadly train crash in July, Sina's Weibo users sent millions of messages criticising the official response to the disaster, which killed 40 people and forced the government to halt the expansion of high-speed rail.

The scale of the response appeared to take authorities by surprise. Shortly after the accident, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, urged officials to use the weibos more to communicate with the public.

Singapore votes for new president

SINGAPORE, August 27, 2011 (AFP) - Singaporeans voted Saturday in the city-state's first contested presidential election in 18 years following a heated campaign marked by calls for stronger checks on the ruling party.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0000 GMT) amid rain showers and will close at 8:00 pm. The winner is expected to be known hours after voting centres close.

Three months after a parliamentary election eroded the dominance of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled since 1959, anti-government sentiment is still running high in the online forums that now shape political debate in Singapore.

Four candidates are running and there are around 2.3 million eligible voters.

The job of president in Singapore is non-partisan and the publication of pre-election survey results is banned, but former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, 71, who quit the PAP in June, is seen as the man to beat.

The three other candidates are former legislator and ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, former insurance cooperative boss Tan Kin Lian and former corporate executive Tan Jee Say, who also worked in the civil service.

Although it is a largely ceremonial post, interest in the presidency intensified after the PAP lost six parliamentary seats in May and saw its share of votes drop to an all-time low of 60 percent, from nearly 67 percent in the previous election.

Analysts said voters now see the presidency as an institution that can serve as a check on the PAP, which has been in power since Singapore gained independence from Britain.

The PAP was widely criticised before the May polls for its socio-economic policies as well as the rising cost of living despite shepherding Singapore's rapid rise to become one of Asia's most advanced economies in just over three decades.

Voting is compulsory in Singapore, where the president was handpicked by parliament until direct elections were introduced in 1993, when only two candidates ran.

Outgoing president SR Nathan, a former civil servant perceived to be close to the PAP, was elected unopposed in 1999 and 2005.

The nine-day campaign for Saturday's vote was dominated by calls for an independent president who can serve as a balancing force against the PAP.

Singaporeans want an "independent fellow who is not beholden to anybody but who can speak on behalf of the people rather than a political party," said veteran political watcher Seah Chiang Nee.

"A lot of people until now dare not speak against the PAP, so if you can come across someone who has the integrity and courage to speak out, people will vote for that candidate," said Seah, who runs the independent website www.littlespeck.com.

The president has the power to act as a check and balance on the government, primarily as custodian of Singapore’s foreign reserves, which stood at close to $250 billion in July.

He has to sign appointments of senior government, civil service, military and judicial officials and can grant clemency to criminals awaiting execution.

Analysts say that even if Tony Tan wins, his share of all votes cast will be closely watched as a measure of support for the PAP.

The three candidates opposing Tony Tan took strongly critical positions against the PAP’s record, but the former deputy premier urged voters to rise above partisan politics.

He described the campaign as "one of the most challenging things I have ever done" and also "the most exciting".


Chinese web users hail Steve Jobs as a 'god'

SHANGHAI, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - The resignation of Apple chief executive Steve Jobs has triggered an outpouring of praise from China's millions of Internet users, with some hailing the visionary co-founder as a "god".

Jobs' shock decision to step down from the helm ranked as the most discussed topic on Chinese Twitter-like sites and many web users said his departure would rip the "soul" out of the high-tech gadget maker.

"Jobs is the god we worship, I cannot imagine what Apple will be without him," Lei Jun, founder of Chinese mobile phone maker Xiaomi, wrote on Sina's micro-blogging service Weibo, which by early Friday had been swamped with 2.5 million posts on a special page dedicated to the news.

Some online users joked that Apple's latest product was "iQuit", while one blogger said "if Bill Gates is the King of software, Steve Jobs must be the King of Everything!".

Jobs, who underwent an operation for pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009, said Wednesday he was stepping down as chief executive to be replaced by chief operating officer Tim Cook.

The 56-year-old said he could no longer meet the "duties and expectations" of running what is the world's second most-valuable company after oil giant ExxonMobil.

An online survey by Sina found 64 percent of the 33,753 respondents believed Jobs' decision to quit would have a "huge" impact on Apple, whose iPod, iPhone and, most recently, iPad tablet have been hugely popular in China.

Many die hard fans in China -- which has the world's largest online population with 485 million users --  queue for days to get their hands on the latest products.

The craze for all things Apple has triggered widespread cloning of iPhones and iPads and in July an American blogger uncovered fake Apple stores in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming.

Apple said its second quarter revenue in greater China -- an area including Taiwan and Hong Kong -- reached $3.8 billion, six times that seen in the same period last year, making the region a key driver behind the company's record results.

Singapore carrier Tiger eyes $131 mn rights issue

SINGAPORE, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore-based Tiger Airways plans to raise Sg$158.6 million (US$131 million) in a rights issue to fund its expansion including the purchase of aircraft.

The budget carrier said in a statement that the funds would also be used to bolster its balance sheet and provide financial flexibility.

The airline is recovering from losses in its Australian operations, which had been suspended for six weeks due to safety concerns and cost the company about Sg$2 million per week while flights were grounded.

Australian regulators lifted the suspension and Tiger Airways Australia resumed its flights on August 12.

Tiger Airways said in the statement late Thursday that it expects to raise Sg$155.2 million in net proceeds after deducting expenses of about Sg$3.4 million related to the rights issue exercise.

It said shareholders Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Dahlia Investments, an indirect subsidiary of state investment firm Temasek Holdings, will subscribe to 90 percent of the issue.

SIA and Dahlia collectively hold a 40.2 percent stake in Tiger but this is likely to increase after the rights issue.

One analyst told Dow Jones Newswires that SIA may take a bigger role in driving strategy at Tiger Airways after the rights exercise.

"Previously, SIA's approach towards Tiger... was to let it be independently managed, having learned from the history of failures of many low cost carriers set up and run by incumbent airlines," J.P.Morgan analyst Corrine Png was quoted as saying.

"However, given SIA's recent decision to launch a 100 percent-owned medium-to-long-haul budget airline and Tiger Australia's issues, SIA could potentially take on a more active role in driving Tiger's strategies going forward," Png noted.

SIA, one of the world's most profitable premium airlines, surprised the industry in May by announcing plans to launch within one year a new low-cost airline plying medium- and long-haul routes.

Heated Singapore presidential vote tests ruling party

SINGAPORE, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - Singaporeans will elect a new president on Saturday after an unusually heated campaign dominated by calls for a more competitive political system after 52 years of rule by the same party.

Three months after a landmark parliamentary election eroded the dominance of the People's Action Party (PAP), anti-government sentiment is still running high in online forums that now shape political debate in the city-state.

It will be the first contested presidential vote in 18 years, with four candidates running for the job -- the highest number since direct elections for the head of state were introduced in 1993.

Interest in the presidency intensified after the PAP, in power since 1959, lost six parliamentary seats in May and saw its share of votes drop to an all-time low of 60.1 percent from nearly 67 percent in the previous election.

The publication of pre-poll survey results is banned in Singapore but the perceived frontrunner is former deputy prime minister Tony Tan, 71, who quit the PAP in June to run after incumbent president S.R. Nathan, 87, announced his retirement.

Analysts say that even if Tan wins, his share of all votes cast will be closely watched as a measure of support for the PAP.

"The presidential election to an extent has been regarded as an extension of the May general elections," Seah Chiang Nee, a veteran political watcher who runs the independent website www.littlespeck.com, told AFP.

"If we're going to continue living with the PAP as a very strong government with a hand in almost everything, I think the people feel that we should have a president who can check the government if it goes out of line," he added.

Tan was heckled by opposition supporters when all four candidates were formally presented to the public on August 17, and has been the target of strident attacks from online critics demanding an independent president.

Despite being a largely ceremonial figure, the president has the power to act as a check and balance on the government, primarily as custodian of Singapore’s foreign reserves, which stood at close to $250 billion in July.

He has to sign appointments of senior government, civil service, military and judicial officials and can grant clemency to criminals awaiting execution.

"The President, who is elected and possesses veto powers, provides a check on a Government that misuses the nation’s financial reserves, or undermines the integrity of the civil service by making appointments out of favouritism," said the official website of the presidency.

Mindful of the May election results, the presidential candidates made great efforts to stress their independence from the PAP during the campaign.

Three lesser-known figures, all of them formerly associated with the PAP, civil service or government-linked companies, are running against Tony Tan and took strongly critical positions against the PAP’s record to gain support.

They are former legislator and ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, former insurance cooperative chief executive Tan Kin Lian, and former corporate executive Tan Jee Say, who also worked in the civil service.

Southeast Asia experts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said Saturday's vote could be a test case for a more competitive political system.

"Through this vote, the city-state is testing models that connote more openness and competition," CSIS analysts Murray Hiebert and Lie Nathanael Santoso wrote in a commentary.

"Singapore politics appear to be adapting to a new age. The emphasis on competition, outreach to constituents and grass-roots caucusing in this election may provide hints of what is to come."

Law professor Simon Tay, chairman of the private think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the risk of another global recession could weigh on voters' minds when they cast ballots.

"People wonder if Singapore's dominant party system can continue and avoid political gridlock, or if the country will see a more normal and contested politics, and if that will affect the country at a time of global uncertainty," he said.

In the May general election campaign, Singaporeans complained about the rising cost of living, lack of affordable public housing and liberal immigration policies blamed for foreigners taking jobs away from locals.

The drop in support for the PAP forced two former prime ministers, Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong, to retire as cabinet advisers to Lee's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Stung by the election outcome, the government vowed to be more responsive and announced measures to address public grievances, including tightening requirements for foreign-worker visas.

Quake-prone Japan looks at geothermal energy

HACHIMANTAI, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - The forces that make Japan one of the world's most quake-prone and volcanic countries, and sparked a nuclear disaster, could become part of its long-term energy solution, experts say.

Steam and hot water billow and gush from deep below the ground at Japan's tens of thousands of famed hot springs and could be harnessed to drive turbines that generate electricity in a clean, safe and stable way, they say.

Although Japanese high-tech companies are leaders in geothermal technology and export it, its use is miniscule in the island nation, which has for decades relied heavily on imported fossil fuels and atomic power.

Japan's parliament was expected to pass a law Friday to promote renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal by forcing power utilities to buy it at fixed prices and letting them pass extra costs onto consumers.

"Japan should no doubt make use of its volcano, magma and other geothermal energy," said Yoshiyasu Takefuji, professor of Tokyo's Keio University and a prominent researcher of thermal-electric power generation.

"The March 11 disaster caused a lot of sadness, but it has also changed people's thinking about energy."

Japan is located on the "Pacific Ring of Fire" at the juncture of four tectonic plates that slowly grind along, driven by the flow of super-hot magma below, creating stresses that are released in earthquakes.

The most powerful of these in Japan's recorded history, a magnitude-9.0 seabed quake, struck on March 11, triggering the huge tsunami that killed more than 20,00 people and set off the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The crisis has sparked a backlash against atomic power, which previously made up 30 percent of Japan's energy needs, and increased interest in alternative energies, which account for only eight percent, most of it hydro.

Artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow, has called on her home country to tap its natural energy, following the example of Iceland which uses steam and hydroelectric power for over 80 percent of its energy needs.

In northern Japan, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the tsunami-ravaged coast, lies Japan's first geothermal power plant, built in 1966 at the hot spring resort of Matsukawa in Hachimantai.

The 23,500-kilowatt plant, set amid mountains where the smell of sulphur hangs thick in the air, never stopped running after the quake, while in contrast, two-thirds of Japan's reactors remain offline for safety checks.

The head of the plant, Kazuhiro Takasu, said Japan must accept that switching to renewables will carry initial extra costs, but that a new 10-billion-yen ($130 million) geothermal plant would break even in "a few decades".

"People are now talking about renewable energy, but such excitement can easily ebb off after a while," Takasu warned.

For now, geothermal makes up less than one percent of the energy mix in Japan, a resource-poor economic powerhouse that imports its oil, coal and gas and has invested heavily in nuclear energy since the 1970s oil crisis.

The biggest hurdle to geothermal, most experts agree, is the high initial cost of the exploration and drilling of deep earth layers that contain hot water, and of then constructing the plants.

Another problem is that Japan's potentially best sites are already being tapped for tourism with popular "onsen" hot spring resorts or are located within national parks where construction is prohibited.

"We can't even dig 10 centimetres (four inches) inside national parks," said Shigeto Yamada, of Fuji Electric's geothermal team, adding that rules protecting nature sanctuaries would need to be relaxed for geothermal to grow.

Hideaki Matsui, senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute, said "geothermal energy is a decades-long project. We also have to think about what to do for now as energy supplies will decline in the short term".

Nonetheless, argue its proponents, geothermal energy has vast potential.

Japan is estimated to have some of the world's largest reserves of usable underground heat -- behind the United States, the Philippines and Indonesia -- but is ranked only sixth in terms of geothermal generation capacity.

Washington-based environmental think-tank the Earth Policy Institute in April estimated that Japan could produce 80,000 megawatts and meet more than half its electricity needs with conventional geothermal technology.

Ironically, Japanese giants such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi are already global leaders in geothermal technology, with a 70 percent market share. Last year Fuji Electric built the world's largest geothermal plant in New Zealand.

Steve Jobs legacy reaches far beyond Apple

SAN FRANCISCO, August 26, 2011 (AFP) - While saving Apple, Steve Jobs changed the world.

Jobs guided Apple from the brink of financial ruin to a lofty place among the world's most valuable companies before stepping down as chief executive this week, apparently due to health woes.

But thinking of Jobs merely as the man behind Apple's resurrection would be on par with thinking of The Beatles as just a band that made cool music.

As did the Fab Four, Jobs altered the rhythm of modern life.

"His legacy goes way beyond Apple," Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg said of Jobs, who ceded his chief executive role on Wednesday to chief operating officer Tim Cook.

Forrester analyst Charles Golvin's "laundry list of the tendrils" Jobs has extended into our lives dates back to the 1970s, when Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple and introduced home computers.

"The whole idea that a computer is something that a consumer might want comes from him," Golvin said.

"The way we compute today wouldn't be what it is without Steve Jobs."

While personal computers powered by Microsoft software ruled work places, Jobs envisioned people-friendly machines with mouse controllers and icons to click on to activate programs or open files.

Jobs is even credited with raising the standard for animated films by bringing his vision to Pixar, a movie studio he founded while exiled for a time from Apple due to an internal conflict.

"At Pixar he redefined what a movie could be like with computers," Gartenberg said of the studio, which has since churned out a series of blockbusters such as "Cars" and "Toy Story."

Jobs also transformed the music industry with iPod MP3 players and the iTunes online shop, where people could buy digitized music.

Prior to iPods and iTunes, the music industry grappled with how to make money selling digital music and struggled to stave off piracy made possible by easy file sharing on the Internet.

With the iPod, Apple gave music lovers a hip new way to listen on the go and provided recording labels and artists a controlled distribution channel for songs.

"Jobs reinvented the music business model," Gartenberg said. "Not only did he have a consumer electronics hit with iPod, but iTunes became the most successful music retailer on the planet."

With the launch of the iPhone, Jobs set in motion a shift to mobile computing on handheld gadgets that Internet giants such as Google and Facebook have embraced as the future.

"Apple really created the modern smartphone era, not just for business but for the consumer," Gartenberg said. "Prior to the iPhone, smartphones were about keyboards, not touchscreens; it was a business device."

And with the iPhone came an "app economy" of smartphone software programs to play games, monitor health, track exercise, navigate and more.

Golvin cited the iPhone as the impetus for Google to dive into the mobile business with Android software for smartphones.

"There were phones that accessed the Internet before the iPhone, but it completely changed the paradigm and brought it to mainstream consumers," Golvin said. "Now look at all the companies profiting from that."

Jobs proclaimed the arrival of a "post personal computer era" with the iPad, which set fire to a moribund tablet computer market.

"With the iPad he revolutionized again the way consumers compute and introduced the whole idea of the post-PC era," Golvin said.

The iTunes shop for digital content expanded to include movies and people increasingly turned to mobile devices for entertainment.

Jobs even left his mark on the retail industry with real-world Apple stores that bring in more profit per square-foot than any other merchant.

"The way things have to be sold was completely changed by Steve Jobs and Apple," Golvin said. "The way technology is marketed, he did it better than anyone else."

While Apple wasn't the first to come up with smartphones or tablet computers, Jobs was a master at tailoring products to resonate with consumers.

He also has marketing magic so potent that people camp out in the streets to be the first to get their hands on Apple's new creations.

"His famous reality distortion field and the ability to convince people are more than legendary," Golvin said.

Nightmare ends: the final hours in Tripoli's Rixos Hotel

TRIPOLI, August 25, 2011 (AFP) - "At best, we were looking at two more days of food; the water was gone and the power cut," AFP correspondent Imed Lamloum recalls of the final hours that he and other journalists spent as prisoners in Tripoli's Rixos Hotel.

The following is his first-hand account of their ordeal, which ended on Wednesday after they managed to talk their way out:

"Two Kadhafi gunmen were patrolling the hotel, and some of us were starting to crack. We were holed up in the Rixos and desperate for help.

It was Wednesday, 6:00 AM, and I could not sleep. We had been trapped for five days, 35 of us, held against our will at the Rixos Hotel in heart of Tripoli, not far from Moamer Kadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound.

For five days, we had been guarded by Kadhafi loyalists armed with Kalashnikovs. On Tuesday our hotel was hit by sniper fire. We spent most of the day in flak jackets and helmets and hung a banner urging them not to shoot the press.

Early Wednesday morning, an Arabic-language TV reporter and I spotted a sniper, who spent the night in a hotel room, creeping down the stairs, a rifle slung over one shoulder, a Kalashnikov over the other.

On the ground floor, we could see another armed man make his way out of a room with a bag of ammo and head for the exit. It looked like our "guards" were leaving -- but we couldn't be sure.

We woke up our colleagues and began to venture outdoors, scanning the area for guards. They seemed to have left. The parking lot was deserted.

We were blinded by the sunlight -- our first day outdoors after three days in the dark, with no electricity or running water. It took a few moments for our eyes to adjust to the light.

I could see the faces around me beginning to relax. The nightmare was almost over.

Suddenly, Hisham -- one of the Rixos guards -- appeared out of nowhere, his Kalashnikov aimed straight at us.

"Get back inside," he barked. "You can't leave. It's dangerous for you."

A few of us attempted to walk towards him, but his tone turned more threatening. A second, younger man with a gun appeared, so we gave up and went back into the hotel. It was a short-lived joy.

Two hours later, journalist Paul Schemm appeared at the door and spoke with Hisham, a rather nice man who has who had several exchanges with journalists at the Rixos over the past six months. He convinced Hisham to let him in.

We negotiated extensively with our guards and they finally agreed to let one of us accompany Paul to buy cigarettes -- another supply we had run out of.

I volunteered to go with him and we headed outside. Battles were raging in the perimeter of the hotel, not far from Kadhafi's home.

We walked on. Paul's car was nowhere to be seen. The driver had fled in terror.

Suddenly four Western journalists pulled up in a car with the black, red and green flag of Libya's rebels draped over the hood. Our two guards pointed their guns at the "rats" -- an epithet Kadhafi loyalists use to describe the rebels.

The Libyan driver was ordered to lie face-down on the pavement by the young guard, who threatened to end his life with one bullet.

Paul and I decided to keep walking through the deserted streets, hoping to find a car. The sound of the fighting nearby was deafening.

I spotted a rebel flag hoisted in the centre of Tripoli, a mere 500 metres (yards) from our hotel. Six months I have been at the Rixos, at the heart of the regime's propaganda machine, and suddenly here is a rebel flag.

We found a car that agreed to take us to the city centre, but all shops were closed. We decided to go instead to the Corinthia Bab Africa, another downtown hotel where journalists were staying to cover the "liberation of Tripoli."

At the Corinthia, I ran into some colleagues of mine and finally got my hands on a Marlboro.

I called my wife to reassure her. She was in tears and begged me not to go back to the Rixos. She had not slept in four days, zapping from one channel to another and following each and every tweet out of the Rixos, where some journalists had a satellite connection.

Since Friday, our only ties to the outside world had been the trusty Thuraya, which we would use lying flat on the roof of the Rixos, bullets whistling over our heads.

Two hours pass, and a driver finally agrees to take me near to the Rixos and drops me off a few hundred metres from the hotel.

My wife contacted me as we were driving back. She had seen a tweet that said the journalists were freed from the Rixos. I turned around and went straight back to the Corinthia, to await the arrival of my colleagues.

In the two hours I was gone, two Arab journalists had persuaded Hisham to lay down his weapon and allow the Red Cross to carry out an evacuation mission.

In return, the journalists promise to protect him. His young comrade, too, dropped his weapon.

My colleagues at the Rixos then contacted a group of rebels, including one who had worked as a Kadhafi fixer for journalists.

The evacuation operation is completed without incident. Emotions were running high. Some were in tears. The nightmare was over.

Our two guards were also evacuated from the site in a Red Cross van. Promise kept.

At the Corinthia, I was told the Rixos was in the hands of the rebels. I decided to go back to get my stuff. Some rebels volunteered to drive a few of us back to collect our belongings. It was my last trip to the Rixos. The final stretch of a six-month stay.

The Rixos was freed without a fight. In the entrance, a huge red, green and black rebel flag had been hoisted. All of the journalists' belongings were being carefully guarded by the rebels, including thousands of dollars in cash.

It was all there. Intact."

Apple co-founder has long history of ill health

PARIS, August 25, 2011 (AFP) - Steve Jobs, who announced on Wednesday that he would step down from the helm at Apple, has a long history of poor health, entailing two major operations in the past seven years and occasional absences that have sparked furious speculation.

In August 2004, Jobs said he had had surgery for pancreatic cancer, a disease that leads in the vast majority of cases to a swift death, sometimes within a few months of diagnosis.

"The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months," Jobs confided to a stunned audience at Stanford University, California, in 2005.

"My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die.

"It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes."

In 95 percent of cases, pancreatic cancer affects a part of the organ called the exocrine glands, which secrete enzymes necessary for digestion.

But in Jobs's case, the diagnosis was more favourable, as the cancer was located on the pancreas' endocrine glands, which disburse hormones such as insulin, which controls blood-sugar levels.

Tumours there are slow to spread, and with high probabilities of survival after five years, the benchmark for cancer remission.

In 2008, Jobs suffered a visible loss in weight, which he attributed to a simple hormone imbalance.

In 2009, he took a lengthy leave for a liver transplant, a heavy-duty operation that requires lifelong taking of drugs to prevent tissue rejection and, because it suppresses the immune system, leaves the body more exposed to opportune infection.

On January 17 this year, he began another spell of medical leave, "so I can focus on my health.".

Jobs, 56, has always been silent about health details, leaving it unclear whether the latest problems could be linked to failure of the liver transplant, to a spread of the cancer or indeed to some other issue.


China bans songs by Lady Gaga, Backstreet Boys

BEIJING, August 25, 2011 (AFP) - China has banned websites from featuring 100 songs by artists from Lady Gaga to the Backstreet Boys, a statement on the culture ministry's website said.

The ministry said it aimed to regulate the "order" of the Internet music market, adding songs that "harm the security of state culture must be cleaned up and regulated under the law".

The notice, issued on August 19 and posted on the ministry's website, included American singer Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory", "Hair", "Marry the Night" and "Bloody Mary".

It did not explain why the songs were banned but China routinely censors anything it considers politically sensitive or offensive.

While "Bloody Mary" ends with the line "Oh, liberdade, mi amor (Oh, freedom, my love)", "Hair" includes the lyrics "This is my prayer/ That I'll die living just as free as my hair".

Boy-band The Backstreet Boys, American R&B singer Beyonce, Canada's Simple Plan and British pop group Take That all had songs on the list -- the third to be issued by China's government.

Asian artists with songs banned included Taiwan's Chang Hui-mei, who previously ran foul of the Beijing government after singing the Taiwan anthem at the inauguration of former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian in 2000.

China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory, temporarily banned her from mainland performances and pulled her product advertisements.

Authorities have reportedly blocked some foreign bands from performing live in China, or scrutinised set lists in advance to nix songs considered offensive.

The official squeamishness over headline foreign performances was heightened when Iceland's Bjork closed a 2008 Shanghai show by shouting "Tibet!" at the end of her song, "Declare Independence".

Since 2010, China has required all songs posted on music websites to receive prior approval, in a move the government said was partly aimed at rampant piracy.

Facebook-Twitter to face riot-spooked British officials

SAN FRANCISCO, August 25, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook and Twitter on Thursday will meet with riot-spooked British officials to discuss how social networks can play roles in keeping people safe during civil unrest.

The focus of a lunchtime meeting with the British Home Secretary has shifted from the notion of blocking social networks during riots to how police can use them to inform law-abiding citizens and track down wrong-doers.

"We look forward to meeting with the Home Secretary to explain the measures we have been taking to ensure that Facebook is a safe and positive platform for people in the UK at this challenging time," Facebook said in an email response to an AFP inquiry.

"In recent days we have ensured any credible threats of violence are removed from Facebook and we have been pleased to see the very positive uses millions of people have been making of our service to let friends and family know they are safe and to strengthen their communities," the statement continued.

Representatives of popular microblogging service Twitter and Canada-based BlackBerry smartphone maker Research In Motion are also to take part in the hour-long meeting.

In the wake of riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested cutting off social networking services used by people causing trouble in the streets.

"Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill," Cameron said in recorded official remarks.

"We are working with police, intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop police communicating via these websites and services when they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality," he continued.

Facebook opposes any ban on its services and will stress at the meeting how social media can be a tool for public safety and crime fighting.

BlackBerry is taking part because messages sent using its service are encrypted, thwarting efforts by police to intercept communications between rioters.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair on Sunday attacked claims that "moral decline" was behind this month's riots, warning talk of a broken society could ruin the country's reputation abroad.

In a rare intervention in domestic politics since leaving power, Blair also warned that flawed analysis by politicians risked producing the wrong policy responses to the violence.

The former Labor leader said the real cause of the unrest, which erupted in London before spreading to other English cities in four nights of mayhem, was groups of disaffected youths outside the mainstream.


Edward Zwick to direct new Hollywood-China film

BEIJING, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - Edward Zwick, producer of "The Last Samurai", will direct the first movie to be made by the new Hollywood-China film production partnership Legendary East, the company said Wednesday.

Zwick has agreed to direct "The Great Wall" -- a movie inspired by the creation of China's best-known landmark and the first of two planned English-language titles set to come out of the partnership.

Legendary East was formed in June by Los Angeles-based production company Legendary Entertainment and Huayi Brothers, China's largest independent film studio.

Huayi is one of a number of Chinese companies teaming up with Hollywood to make films about Chinese subjects with worldwide appeal.

"'The Great Wall' exemplifies the type of globally-appealing, commercial movie we intend to have Legendary East become known for," said Jon Jashni, the company's chief creative officer.

The film will bring longtime partners Zwick and screenwriter Marshall Herskovitz back to an Asian subject for the first time since "The Last Samurai", which won four Oscar nominations and grossed $435 million globally.

The Great Wall, a series of stone and earthen fortifications originally built in the fifth century BC to protect China's northern borders from invasion, is among the country's most enduring symbols.

Once complete, Huayi plans to distribute the film in China. Legendary East said it expected longtime Legendary partner Warner Bros. Pictures to distribute it to other countries around the world.

Malaysian 'forces husband to hear mistress tortured'

KUALA LUMPUR, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - A Malaysian woman has been arrested for allegedly kidnapping her husband's mistress for several days and forcing him to listen by phone while his lover was tortured and beaten, police said Wednesday.

The enraged wife was arrested on Tuesday in a suburb of the capital Kuala Lumpur, after her husband filed a police report, local district police chief Abdul Rahim Abdullah told AFP.

The victim was found and freed a few hours later.

Abdul Rahim said the husband was speaking with his lover on the phone last week when he suddenly heard his wife get on the line.

"According to investigations, the wife and her brother had found the man's mistress and made him listen while the two tortured and beat up the mistress before hanging up," he told AFP.

He declined to give any details on the people involved in the case.

Abdul Rahim said the wife called her husband again the next day and let him speak to his mistress, who complained of being beaten and having her hair cut off.

"The wife later met her husband on Sunday and showed him several pictures of his lover, who appeared to be tied up," he said.

"She also demanded a 50,000 ringgit ($16,800) ransom if he wanted to see the mistress again but the police managed to track the wife down before the situation got any worse," he added.

He said that police had also arrested the brother and four accomplices whose role in the case he refused to specify.

Growing energy demand adds stress to water supply

SINGAPORE, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - A Google search for "world water shortage" will produce more than four million results in 0.17 seconds. It will also use a tenth of a teaspoon of water, experts say.

Given water's role in power generation, the impact of about 300 million Google searches a day is around 150,000 litres (40,000 gallons) daily -- in a world where water supplies are increasingly a major concern.

"These two things -- water and energy -- come together and that's a big thing for the world to understand," says Len Rodman, a US-based water and energy expert.

"If you squander water, if you indiscriminately use power, then in the long run that will have implications for the world," the chief executive of Black & Veatch, a major global water and energy company told AFP in an interview.

Water is used not only to generate power through dams and steam but also as a coolant for nuclear, coal and gas-fired power plants, which are competing with agriculture, industry and urban consumption for water supplies.

The Asian Development Bank has forecast the region's energy demand to double by 2030 to 6,325 million tonnes of oil equivalent, or about 74 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Water will play an increasing role as a power source for Asia but supplies are already under threat, said the ADB.

China and India, the world's most populous nations, are expected to have a combined shortfall of one trillion cubic metres (35 trillion cubic feet) of water within 20 years.

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam are already under "water stress" conditions, meaning they are experiencing periodic or limited water shortages.

During an international water conference in Singapore in July attended by Rodman, industry players and government officials called for better integration of water and energy policies to help find solutions to looming shortages.

"There is a growing realisation that we can no longer think about energy and water separately," Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in California, said at the conference.

A recent survey of more than 700 US utilities firms by Black & Veatch showed that for the first time, water supply was the top environmental concern among the respondents.

Asia is likely to face the same problems, Rodman said.

"It will truly be exacerbated in this region because of the urban densities that are there. You've got tremendous numbers of highly concentrated urban areas," he said.

The needs of the region's agricultural sector can also affect power supplies.

In 2008, 2.2 billion cubic metres of water were diverted from three major hydroelectric plants in Vietnam for agriculture, leading to a shortfall of 430 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, Black & Veatch said.

Research is continually being carried out on water treatment technologies that require less energy as well as power-generation facilities that would need less water, experts said.

Advanced technologies to treat polluted water as well as recycle water from toilets, kitchen sinks and sewers for use in homes and industries will help address Asia's future needs, they said.

Companies like Siemens Water Technologies are doing research aimed at integrating desalination -- an energy-intensive process to purify seawater -- with solar power.

Rodman said encouraging people to change their consumption patterns of water and energy by helping them understand the link between the two is equally important.

"Gone are the days when water is independent from energy," he said.

AIDS stalks gay and transgender Indians

NEW DELHI, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - India's success in slashing HIV/AIDS infection rates by 50 percent in the last decade masks a high rate of infection among homosexual and transgender people, experts say.

This anomaly was highlighted last month by the country's Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad in a now notorious speech at an AIDS conference that will be remembered for other reasons.

Azad went on to call homosexuality "a disease which has come from other countries" and "unnatural", in comments widely condemned by gay rights activists and AIDS workers.

At the Pahal Foundation in the northern state of Haryana, which provides free HIV tests, condoms and counselling services to gay and transgender people, project manager Maksoom Ali says he faces a constant battle against ignorance. Most gay men, fearing homophobia, are forced to hide their sexual activity, and others have no idea about the dangers of unprotected intercourse, he said.

"Many people think that men having sex with men cannot get HIV and that's one reason why (homosexual and transgender) people have a lot of unsafe sex," Ali told AFP.

The country's National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) estimates that 7.3 percent of India's homosexual population lives with HIV, compared with 0.31 percent of the total adult population.

The UN AIDS agency estimated that around a third of men who have sex with men in India fail to access services like HIV testing, sex education and free condom supplies.

Many of the people who use Pahal's services are low-paid factory workers, labourers, or sex workers like 25-year-old Sanam who first came to the centre three years ago.

Sanam, a transgender whose original name was Sushil Kumar Pandey, told AFP she knew nothing about sexually transmitted diseases when she entered the sex trade.

"I never used to take it seriously, we used to do it without condoms," she said.

She learnt about HIV/AIDS only after visiting the Pahal premises.

"They first conducted a blood test on me, then they told me about HIV, what it is, how it spreads. Because of that I always use condoms," she said.

Although the Indian government has committed funds to HIV-fighting organisations that work with the gay and transgender community, many NGOs say that financing falls short.

The Pahal Foundation says it treats 50 percent more people than it has budgeted for.

Gay rights activist and UNAIDS technical officer for sexual minorities, Ashok Row Kavi, said that authorities lack a true awareness of the problem in the gay community.

"We don't have a proper denominator for the number of MSM (men having sex with men), and that number is much higher than what we are willing to accept," he told AFP.

"It's very worrying because hardly four percent of the (government) money for fighting HIV is coming to MSM groups," he added.

Attitudes to homosexuality are slowly changing in India, although it is still often viewed as a mental illness or something shameful to be ignored, particularly in rural areas.

Two years ago, a landmark Delhi High Court ruling decriminalised homosexuality, which was illegal under a 150-year-old British colonial law that banned "carnal intercourse against the order of nature".

Conviction carried a fine and maximum 10-year jail sentence.

But many gay and transgender sex workers who spoke to AFP said they continue to face verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis.

Rupali, a 24-year-old transgender sex worker whose original name was Lalit Sharma, said she feared for her safety nearly every day.

"There are people who turn up drunk, local goons, we have to convince them that there is such a frightening disease going around, there can be a problem like this, so use a condom," she told AFP.

But sometimes, she said, customers used force to pressure her and other sex workers to have unprotected sex.

Most of all she feared the police. "They force us to have sex, they take our money and then they beat us up," she said.

Kadhafi says he quit compound in 'tactical withdrawal'

TRIPOLI, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi said Wednesday he had abandoned his Tripoli compound, seized earlier by rebel fighters, in a "tactical withdrawal."

"Bab al-Azizya was nothing but a heap of rubble after it was the target of 64 NATO missiles and we withdrew from it for tactical reasons," he said in a speech carried by the website of a television station headed by his son Seif al-Islam.

The speech also quoted by the pro-Kadhafi Al-Oruba channel came after rebel fighters stormed the sprawling compound but found no trace of him or any of his family.

It gave no indication of where he had gone.

At the same time Kadhafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told the Syrian-based Arrai channel that more than 6,500 "volunteers" had arrived in Tripoli to fight for the regime and called for more.

"The volunteers can come to Libya and we will give them weapons, ammunition and training," he said.

Ibrahim said Kadhafi's forces had captured several rebel leaders and warned that if NATO raids continued "we will turn Libya into a brazier and we can protect civilians from the crusader gangs and alliances."

Facebook makes sharing more selective

SAN FRANCISCO, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook on Tuesday announced it is rolling out improvements aimed at letting users be more selective about who gets to see what they post at the world's largest online social network.

The move came in the face of a challenge from a freshly launched Google+ social network, which has won legions of fans by allowing people to share content based on which "circles" friends fall into.

"We're announcing a bunch of improvements that make it easier to share posts, photos, tags and other content with exactly the people you want," Facebook's Chris Cox said in a blog post.

"You have told us that 'who can see this?' could be clearer across Facebook, so we have made changes to make this more visual and straightforward," he continued.

The main change at Facebook will be moving controls from a settings page to places next to posts, photos and tags so people can make decisions about sharing while looking at content they are about to send to profiles.

Changes will also make it easier for Facebook users to understand who can see their online content and how it appears to others, according to Cox.

"These changes will start to roll out in the coming days," Cox said.

"Taken together, we hope these new tools make it easier to share with exactly who you want, and that the resulting experience is a lot clearer and a lot more fun," he added.

Google is a latecomer to social networking but its new site, Google+, has grown rapidly to more than 10 million members since its launch on June 28.

In unveiling Google+, Google stressed the ability it gives users to separate online friends and family into different "Circles," or networks, and to share information only with members of a particular circle.

One of the criticisms of Facebook is that updates are shared with all of one's friends unless a user has gone through a relatively complicated process to create separate Facebook Groups.

While Google+ may be the fastest-growing social network ever, it remains to be seen whether it can pose a serious threat to the social networking titan Facebook, which has more than 750 million members.

Google has a billion users worldwide that could be drawn into the California-based Internet giant's social network.

Under fire, Biden blasts 'repugnant' China policies

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Under fire from angry Republicans, US Vice President Joe Biden's office said Tuesday that he firmly opposes "repugnant"    Chinese population control practices like "forced abortion and sterilization."

"The Obama Administration strongly opposes all aspects of China's coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization," Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff told AFP by email.

"The Vice President believes such practices are repugnant," she said after Republican White House candidates blasted Biden for recent comments he made about Beijing's "one-child" population control policy during a visit to China.

Biden told an audience at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, Sunday that "your policy has been one which I fully understand -- I’m not second-guessing -- of one child per family."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the Republican nod to take on President Barack Obama in November 2012 elections, on Tuesday accused Biden of "condoning" a "gruesome and barbaric" policy.

"There can be no defense of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control," he said, charging that Biden's comments "should shock the conscience of every American."

Barkoff pointed out that Biden, who was discussing the ratio of active workers to retirees, had also called the policy "unsustainable" and said "he was arguing against the One Child Policy to a Chinese audience."

But Texas Governor and Romney rival Rick Perry charged that Biden's "refusal to 'second-guess' this horrendous policy demonstrates great moral indifference on the part of the Obama Administration."

"Americans value life, and we deserve leaders who will stand up against such inhumanity, not cast a blind eye," said Perry.

Former US China envoy Jon Huntsman said through an aide that the policy "runs counter to the fundamental value of human life" and that he was "heartbroken" that Beijing's approach "has cost millions of lives."

"As an adoptive father, whose daughter was abandoned by her parents in China, Governor Huntsman is intimately familiar with the impact of China's 'one-child' policy," said the aide, Tim Miller.

The comments came one day after Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the number-three US elected official, said he was "deeply troubled" by Biden's words and that the policy "should not be condoned by any American official."

Obama's "administration should be focusing on jobs for the American people, not encouraging foreign governments to utilize abortion as a means of population and deficit control," said Boehner.

The speaker urged the White House to provide "a correction or clarification" to Biden's comments.

Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, charged that Biden's remarks amounted to "trampling on the memory of the millions of children who have lost their lives at the hands of a Communist regime."

"It is sad that our vice president lacks the courage and moral fortitude to stand up for what is right and defend those that have no voice," he said in a statement on Tuesday.

The vice president's statement also drew fire from a leader of the repressed Tiananmen Square protests, Chai Ling, who has become a born-again Christian and activist against the "one-child" policy.

"At best, it is a statement of ambiguity that gives permission to China to continue its brutal and coercive birth planning policy," said a statement from her advocacy group, All Girls Allowed.

"At worst, it is an endorsement of the exorbitant fines, severe beatings, and forced abortions and sterilizations that are performed on thousands of Chinese families every day -- an ongoing Tiananmen massacre every hour," she said.

Kadhafi loyalists hold journalists in Tripoli hotel

TRIPOLI, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Foreign journalists who covered the Libyan conflict from Moamer Kadhafi's side were trapped inside their hotel for a third day Wednesday as gunmen still loyal to the regime kept them prisoner.

With electricity and water cut off and no staff, the 30 or so journalists, including an AFP reporter, were grouped on the first floor of the Hotel Rixos, wearing helmets and flak jackets and listening to the sounds of gunfire outside.

As the capital erupted in celebratory gunshots after rebels stormed and captured Kadhafi's heavily fortified compound, their guards denied that Tripoli was falling into the hands of the insurgents.

As stray bullets struck the hotel, the correspondents hung banners on the outside, reading "Television, press, don't shoot."

From time to time their captors came by to take some of the dwindling food supplies or check up on them, giving the impression that they were being held hostage.

One young man armed with a Kalashnikov came up to the first floor but was persuaded not to stay.

"If you want a fight, go downstairs," one correspondent told him.

Moody's cuts Japan debt rating

TOKYO, August 24, 2011 (AFP) - Major ratings agency Moody's Investors Service downgraded Japan's sovereign debt rating by one notch Wednesday, putting fresh pressure on the country's political leaders to repair its finances.

Moody's said it was cutting Japan's government bond rating to Aa3 from Aa2, citing the "large budget deficits and the build-up in Japanese government debt since the 2009 global recession".

It is the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that a major ratings agency has downgraded Japan's sovereign debt. Moody's said the outlook was stable.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan described the downgrading as "regrettable", according to Jiji Press news agency, while Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda defended the creditworthiness of Japan's bonds.

"I will not comment on the actions of a private rating agency. The smooth sales of Japanese government bonds at recent auctions show that confidence remains unshaken," Noda told reporters.

The yen, which hit its post-war high of 75.95 to the dollar last week, fell slightly after the Moody's action.

The dollar was changing hands at 76.70 yen in early Tokyo trade after after rising as high as 76.78, compared with 76.66 before the announcement.

"It's a short-term yen-selling factor," said Yuji Kameoka, managing director of foreign exchange at Daiwa Securities.

The rating cut alone is unlikely to weaken the yen in the long term without any sell-offs in Japanese government bonds, he said.

Noda is to hold a news conference at 0230 GMT on the Japanese government's measures to cope with the strong yen, which has been hurting the nation's exports.

The key Nikkei-225 index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange was up 0.70 percent after the first 30 minutes of trading after opening up 0.91 percent.

The downgrade puts Moody's on a par with other major ratings companies Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings, both of which rate Japan's sovereign debt at AA- with a negative outlook.

Moody's last changed Japan's rating in May 2009, when it raised it from Aa3.

As Japan's fiscal position worsened this year, it lowered the outlook to negative on February 22.

It announced a review for possible downgrade on May 31, voicing doubt the country's leaders would be able to contain the industrialised world's biggest debt.

The downgrade comes less than a week before Japan is to select a new prime minister to become the nation's sixth leader in five years.

Japan's debt stands at around 200 percent of its GDP, after years of pump-priming measures by governments trying in vain to arrest the economy's long decline.

A rapidly ageing population, entrenched deflation and a feeble economy have made it hard for lawmakers to curb borrowing.

Japan is set to issue more bonds later this year to help finance reconstruction from the March disaster.

Malaysia condemned for deporting Uighurs to China

KUALA LUMPUR, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - A human rights group criticised Malaysia on Tuesday for sending a group of ethnic Uighurs back to China and urged an end to such deportations over fears of mistreatment and even torture.

The UN refugee agency also said it had sought access to the 11 people deported on August 18 as well as five others still in custody in Malaysia but had been denied by Malaysian authorities.

A senior Malaysian police official defended the government's actions in comments to AFP, saying the Chinese nationals, all members of the Uighur ethnic minority, were involved in a human-smuggling syndicate.

"This group has nothing to do with any political group or asylum-seekers. They are all involved in people smuggling," he said.

Announcing the deportations on Saturday, police said they had busted a Chinese people smuggling ring which was falsely trying to claim UN refugee status for its victims after smuggling them into Malaysia.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced the deportations and urged they be halted, saying Uighurs faced "grave risk of torture" in China.

It also called on China to make known where the 11 deportees were.

"The treatment of these Uighurs is a litmus test for Malaysia’s commitment to basic principles of refugee protection," it said in a statement.

Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim minority in China's remote northwestern Xinjiang region, allege decades of political and religious repression by China.

Their anger -- and China's resulting tight security in the region -- has triggered sporadic bouts of unrest.

The deportations come amid a refugee swap arrangement between Malaysia and Australia, which has been put on hold by a Canberra court.

Rights groups moved to block the deal, citing concerns over Malaysia's record on handling refugees.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Yante Ismail said the agency had sought access to all 16 Uighurs. She said the five in detention had all previously applied for refugee status with the agency.

"We very much regret that the 11 individuals were deported without the opportunity for us to have access to them," she said in a statement.

The police official said there were no immediate plans to deport the five but that they could face criminal charges over fake Malaysian passports found on them.

The US-based Uyghur American Association called the deportations a "flagrant violation of international law" by Malaysia.

"(The deportations) follow an extremely disturbing trend of Uighurs deported from countries with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China," it said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said other countries such as Thailand and Pakistan had recently deported Uighurs back to China, adding that it revealed "the bullying hand of China".

Malaysia's Petronas in S. China Sea gas project

KUALA LUMPUR, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysian state energy firm Petronas said Tuesday it will embark on a 15 billion ringgit ($5 billion) project to develop natural gas fields in the South China Sea off the country's eastern coast.

With the involvement of other "partners", the "North Malay Basin project" will extract gas with high carbon dioxide content from nine marginal fields to meet rising Malaysian demand, Petronas said in a statement.

It also will develop a new 200-kilometre (124-mile) pipeline to transport gas from the fields to Kerteh, in Terengganu state in peninsular Malaysia.

Petronas did not name its partners in the project.

The first delivery of 100 million standard cubic feet of gas per day was expected by early 2013, ramping up to 250 million cubic feet by 2015, it said.

Two years ago, Petronas announced it would scale back on foreign drilling and focus its development and extraction efforts closer to home.

The move came as Malaysia strives to counteract an export slump. Petronas -- Malaysia's only Fortune 500 company -- contributes almost half the country's budget revenues.

Prime Minister Najib Razak is also pushing for the development of more reserves to address future energy demand.

Sony remodels PlayStation Home

SAN FRANCISCO, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Sony is remodeling PlayStation Home to put games at center stage in a virtual world that merges console-quality play with styles of social gaming that are hits at venues such as Facebook.

Sony Computer Entertainment America on Tuesday announced that it is remodeling Home, which is used by more than 23 million people worldwide, as part of an evolution from a social network into a social gaming platform.

"We discovered that if you put a lot of gamers in a room together and tell them to get to know each other, they don't necessarily do that," PlayStation Home director Jack Buser told AFP.

"We find if you put them together and give them a game, they play and get to know each other," he added while discussing the inspiration for the redesign to be unveiled in coming months.

Home launched in late 2008 as an online world in which PlayStation 3 videogame console users represented by animated figures referred to as "avatars" could socialize and play.

"PlayStation Home's new core experience is a giant leap in the evolution of the platform and its new model quickly deploys our users to many compelling free-to-play games that fit their interests," Buser said.

The Home redesign includes the creation of a "hub" that integrates games, quests, community events, user-generated content, shopping and more.

PlayStation users with be able to "transport" their animated characters to game districts with themes such as action, sports, and adventure.

"Under the hood of all this we will be deploying a quest system that will turn Home itself into a game," Buser said.

Home is at the heart of Sony's PlayStation Network that lets owners of PS3 consoles access games, films, and other entertainment.

Home has more than 230 titles available and has been incorporating successful social game models such as free play supported by advertising or sales of premium content.

200 mn in US to use smartphones or tablets by 2015: forecast

SAN FRANCISCO, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Some 200 million Americans will own smartphones or tablet computers by 2015, with many people having both, marketing intelligence firm In-Stat forecast on Tuesday.

"This market trend will have a huge impact on how video entertainment is acquired and consumed," the firm predicted in its forecast.

Technology titans such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft have been staking out territory in a "post-PC" world marked by people tapping into the Internet from mobile gadgets instead of desktop computers.

Rebels capture Kadhafi compound in Tripoli: AFP

TRIPOLI, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - Rebel fighters captured Moamer Kadhafi's heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound and headquarters in Tripoli on Tuesday after a day of fierce fighting, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

The defenders had fled, and there was no immediate word on the whereabouts of Kadhafi or his family after the insurgents breached the defences as part of a massive assault that began in the morning.

"Rebels breached the surrounding cement walls and entered inside. They have taken Bab al-Azizya. Completely. It is finished," the correspondent said.

"It is an incredible sight," he said, adding that the bodies of a number of apparent Kadhafi fighters were lying inside, as well as wounded.

Only minutes earlier, rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said from Benghazi: "Our forces are surrounding Bab al-Azizya. There is a fierce battle going on there. We are now controlling one of the gates, the western entrance."

The correspondent said rebels found an armoury in one of the buildings and were seizing quantities of ammunition, pistols and assault rifles.

There was no immediate comment from the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Bengazi, but an official in the western city of Misrata said that "at the same house used by Kadhafi before to describe the Libyan people as rats, today the independence flag flying on its roof."

Amid reports that ordinary citizens were beginning to stream into the complex of several hectares (acres), rebel television Al-Ahrar called on people to stay away so that insurgent fighters could mop up inside.

It also urged police in Tripoli to remain at their posts in order to guarantee security.

On Tuesday morning, Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, who was reportedly under arrest, made a surprise appearance in Tripoli and announced that his father and family were still in the capital.

However, he declined to say where.

"Kadhafi and the entire family are in Tripoli," Seif told reporters at the Rixos Hotel where many foreign journalists are housed.

Seif also said the regime's forces had deliberately not tried to prevent the rebels from entering the capital.

"Allowing the rebels to enter Tripoli was a trick," he said, without elaborating.

NATO, meanwhile, said Kadhafi was "not a target" for the military alliance.

"NATO does not target individuals," said Operation Unified Protector spokesman, Colonel Roland Lavoie.

"Kadhafi does not constitute a target," he told reporters in Brussels via video-conference from the mission's Naples headquarters.

In the hours that led up to the storming of the compound in central Tripoli, the sound of the fighting was the most intense heard in the city since rebels arrived three days ago.

The correspondent said rebel forces coming from the western city of Misrata had reinforced the offensive during the afternoon.

The rebel official in Misrata said one of their commanders had been killed in the assault on the compound.

The sky was filled with the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the overhead roar of NATO jets that had been carrying intensive over flights though it was unclear if there were any air strikes.

Even two kilometres (about a mile) from the fighting, the almost constant whistle of falling bullets could be hear from the rooftops, as the city's mosques chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest).


And then Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam arrived...

TRIPOLI, August 23, 2011 (AFP) - "Don't worry, it's an armoured vehicle," the driver tells the three reporters in the back of the BMW as they set off to interview Seif al-Islam, whom Libyan rebels claimed they had arrested.

Being invited to interview the influential son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi was surprising enough as the world was told he had fallen into the hands of the rebels when they surged into Tripoli on Sunday in a final drive to oust his father.

Even more baffling was that International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo had confirmed the arrest and said he was in discussions with Libya's opposition to secure the Seif's transfer to the ICC, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity.

Driving through the darkened streets of the capital, which the rebels claim is 95 percent under their control, merely adds to the sense of mystery.

With little lighting due to power cuts, the empty streets where fighting had raged on Sunday and Monday between rebels and Kadhafi's forces look unfamiliar and foreboding.

During what turns out to be a trip of just two kilometres (over a mile) -- between the Hotel Rixos where many foreign media are housed and Kadhafi's Bab al-Azizya compound -- the driver becomes erratic, sometimes snuffing the headlights, other times accelerating wildly, or suddenly slowing.

Finally the vehicle arrives at one of the entrances to Kadhafi's sprawling residence, which bears the ragged scars of repeated bombings by the warplanes of NATO, which is backing Libya's rebellion.

The driver is forced to drive on the pavement to avoid a concrete barrier.

The guards open the gates. The journalists are in the heart of Bab al-Aziziya where rumours are circulating of imminent fresh bombings by NATO jets.

Dozens of pickups and 4x4s, on which machineguns or anti-aircraft guns are mounted, line the route.

The car eventually stops in front of the "house of resistance" -- the ruins of a building bombed in 1996 by American warplanes in raids which killed Kadhafi's adopted daughter.

Several dozen regime supporters, thinking Kadhafi's son has come, begin chanting slogans and waving the Libyan flag.

"Allah, Moamer, Libya and that's it," they chant, brandishing pictures of Seif and his father before peering into the vehicle and finding journalists, but still not moving away from the car.

Seif, sporting a khaki T-shirt, arrives in an armoured 4x4.

"Get in, quickly" one of the men accompanying him tells the journalists pointing to another 4x4.

The vehicles stop after a few hundred metres next to an empty field lit by lamps.

Everyone gets out and Seif accompanied by his guards goes into the meeting with the journalists.

Some loyalists attach a green Libyan flag behind the chair where Seif is to sit. On a coffee table, they place a small Libyan flag, a Koran and a copy of Kadhafi's Green Book, the 1975 text in which he laid out his philosophy.

"Did you see the fighting today?" Seif asks with a smile.

"No we only heard the sound" of fighting, replied one of the journalists, who like about 30 other members of the foreign media are confined to a hotel which has been deserted by staff and has seen no electricity or water for two days.


Heavy fighting near Kadhafi's Tripoli residence

TRIPOLI, August 22, 2011 (AFP) - Heavy fighting raged Monday near the Tripoli compound of embattled Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, an AFP reporter said, a day after jubilant rebel forces surged into the symbolic heart of the capital.

Fighting was also heard from around 0400 GMT in the south of the capital, where there were exchanges of heavy weaponry and automatic rifle fire.

Rebel leaders had earlier warned that pockets of resistance remained despite most of Kadhafi's defenders vanishing during the rebels' lightning charge through Tripoli on Sunday.

The whereabouts of the Libyan strongman were unknown Monday but one of his sons, Seif al-Islam had been arrested while another, Mohamed Kadhafi was interviewed by Al-Jazeera television cowering in his house, afraid to leave.

Kadhafi broadcast three defiant audio messages on Sunday, vowing he would not surrender and urging the people of Tripoli to "purge the capital, even as rebel forces swept through the capital and took over the symbolic Green Square at the waterfront. But he has not been seen in public for weeks.

A diplomatic source said the strongman could still be in his Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli.

"He is still in Tripoli and could be in his residence at Bab al-Aziziya," said the source, who met the embattled strongman within the past two weeks.

The Bab al-Aziziya compound has been blasted regularly since the start of the international military intervention in Libya on March 19 and most of the buildings in the complex have been flattened.

But Kadhafi has many bunkers there that he could take cover in, the diplomatic source said.

In a brief telephonic interview with Al-Jazeera television broadcast Monday morning, Mohamed Kadhafi admitted the regime had made mistakes.

"I was not part of the security or official systems of the government to know what was going on. I think that the lack of reason and wide vision led Libya to where it is now," he said in the interview.

"Our problems were simple. They could have been solved," he said as the crackle of gunfire, which he said was "inside" his home, interrupted his conversation.

Libya rebels surge into the heart of Tripoli

TRIPOLI, August 22, 2011 (AFP) - Libyan rebels were in the heart of Tripoli on Monday after surging into the capital in a final drive to oust Moamer Kadhafi, seizing swathes of the city and arresting the strongman's son, Seif al-Islam.

US President Barack Obama said the Kadhafi regime was at a "tipping point" and that the "tyrant" must go, adding a call for the rebels to respect human rights and move to democracy.

Senior rebel figure Mahmud Jibril said there were still pockets of resistance in and around Tripoli and warned his forces to be cautious.

An AFP reporter said the night was mainly calm although the sound of fighting was heard early on Monday in the south of the capital. By daybreak it was still not clear how much of the capital the rebels controlled.

Jibril called on the insurgents to act responsibly as the battle to end four decades of dictatorship neared its end.

"The fight is not over yet," he said on rebel television Al-Ahrar. "God willing, in few hours our victory will be complete."

Thousands of residents poured onto the streets of Tripoli Sunday night to welcome the rebels, congregating at the symbolic Green Square near the waterfront which they renamed Martyrs Square.

Sky News showed jubilant crowds, with many people waving the red, black and green flag of anti-regime forces, dancing in joy and shouting Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). Some fired rifles into the air.

Similar scenes of jubilation were witnessed in Benghazi, the rebels' bastion in the east, where tens of thousands of delirious residents danced and proclaimed the end of the regime of the "tyrant" Kadhafi.

While the embattled Kadhafi spoke to the nation three times on Sunday in audio recordings, his whereabouts were unknown and he has not been seen in public for weeks.

But the 69-year-old strongman vowed not to surrender and urged the people of Tripoli to "purge the capital."

Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a press conference 1,300 people had been killed in the rebel assault on the capital, describing the fighting as a "real tragedy."

But there was no independent confirmation of casualties, nor any immediate indication of how much resistance may have been put up against the rebels.

Ibrahim insisted that Libya's regime "is still strong and thousands of volunteers and soldiers are ready to fight" although the reality on the ground seemed to belie his boasts.

In The Hague, the International Criminal Court confirmed that Kadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, for whom the ICC had issued arrest warrants for crimes against humanity, is in detention.

"I have received confidential information stating he has been arrested," Luis Moreno-Ocampo told AFP.

"We hope he can soon be in the Hague" to face justice, he said, adding that he planned to contact the "Libyan transitional government" later in the day.

Earlier, the chairman of Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil told Al-Jazeera television from Benghazi Seif was "being kept in a secure place under close guard until he is handed over to the judiciary."

Abdel Jalil did not say when or where he had been captured.

Describing their assault, rebel leaders said an advance party of fighters had arrived by sea in the capital early Sunday and joined sleeper cells of rebels to launch the final drive, codenamed "Mermaid."

Another rebel force advanced from the west, moving in a convoy of around 100 vehicles as onlookers fired celebratory gunfire into the air, an AFP correspondent said.

By afternoon they had overrun the eastern suburb of Tajura and boasted that they would seize control of the capital during the night.

Meanwhile, a rebel party seized an army barracks at a western entrance to Tripoli, raiding the stores of missiles and other ammunition, AFP correspondents there said.

They also released dozens of prisoners held in Maya, 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Tripoli.

A rebel spokesman said the insurgents were also tightening the noose around loyalist forces in the far west of Libya, near the Tunisian border.

In his three audio messages broadcast on Sunday, Kadhafi remained adamant he would not relinquish power.

"We will not, we will not abandon Tripoli to the occupants and their agents. I am with you in this battle," he said in one message.

"We do not surrender and, by God's grace, we will emerge victorious."

He called on his supporters to "march on Tajura in tens of thousands to purge the officials of the colonisers," in a reference to the rebels, who have since March been backed by blistering NATO air strikes on Kadhafi's military.

In another message he urged supporters to "march by the millions" to liberate cities held by "traitors and rats."

Obama issued a written statement calling on the rebels to respect human rights, show leadership, preserve the institutions of the Libyan state and move towards democracy.

"Tonight, the momentum against the Kadhafi regime has reached a tipping point. Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant," Obama said as he took a vacation at the resort of Martha's Vineyard.

"The Kadhafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator."

For his part, Jibril urged rebels to act with magnanimity.

"The world is watching us," he added. "Do not avenge yourselves."

He took particular pains to refer to those close to Kadhafi who might be captured.

"Prove that we are up the responsibility to protect them and their lives," he said.

The New York Times said meanwhile that intensified US aerial activity in and around Tripoli may have helped tilt the balance of power toward the rebels.

Citing unnamed officials, the newspaper said that in recent days, the US established around-the-clock surveillance over the dwindling areas that Libyan military forces still controlled, using armed Predator drones to detect, track and occasionally fire at those forces.

At the same time, Britain, France and other nations deployed special forces on the ground inside Libya to help train and arm the rebels, the report said.

Skype buys messaging startup GroupMe

WASHINGTON, August 22, 2011 (AFP) - Skype, the Internet communications group set to be acquired by Microsoft, announced plans Sunday to buy the mobile messaging startup firm GroupMe for undisclosed terms.

GroupMe was founded in 2010 at the Techcrunch Disrupt Hackathon and is headquartered in New York.

The deal, coupled with the acquisition of mobile video provider Qik earlier this year, "augments Skype's role as an innovator in driving unique mobile user experiences," the company said in a statement.

"Through the acquisition of GroupMe, Skype continues its drive to provide a global multi-modal and multi-platform communications experience. The acquisition of GroupMe complements Skype's leadership in voice and video communications by providing best in class text-based communications and innovative features that enable users to connect, share locations and photos and make plans with their closest ties."

Tony Bates, Skype's chief executive, said GroupMe "has created an incredibly sticky group messaging experience that works across mobile devices and platforms, making this a perfect addition to the voice, video and text products in the Skype family."

Founded in 2003 and based in Luxembourg, Skype is in the process of being acquired by US software giant Microsoft after being spun off by eBay.

Microsoft said recently it hopes to close the deal for purchase of the Internet voice and video leader by October, once it gets the green light from European regulators.

Malaysia's Anwar defiant as sodomy trial resumes

KUALA LUMPUR, August 22, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Monday rejected sodomy charges against him as a "vicious lie" meant to ruin him politically, as he spoke in his defence for the first time in the trial.

Anwar made the claim while reading out an opening statement from the dock as the defence began presenting its case in the often-delayed trial. The prosecution rested its case in March.

"The allegation is a blatant and vicious lie and will be proven so. This is a vile and desperate attempt at character assassination," Anwar told a Kuala Lumpur courtroom packed with journalists and foreign diplomats.

"This entire process is nothing but a conspiracy by Prime Minister Najib Razak to send me into political oblivion by attempting once again to put me behind bars," he added later.

Anwar, 64, is charged with sodomising young male aide Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan in June 2008 and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Sodomy is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The former deputy prime minister and one-time Malaysian leader-in-waiting has blasted the trial as a political frame-up aimed at thwarting a political opposition that has found new strength under him.

Dressed in a dark suit, Anwar spent an hour reading out the statement, in which he said the prosecution's case was riven by inconsistencies.

"I categorically deny the charges against me. I want to state in no uncertain terms that I never had sexual relations with the complainant," he said.

"They can do all they want to sully my reputation and threaten me with... jail. They won't be able to cow me. The truth will prevail."

Anwar's legal battles have dominated Malaysian politics for years.

Malaysia was once one of Asia's most politically stable countries under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had groomed Anwar to take the helm of the economically vibrant, multi-cultural nation.

But a bitter split over how to respond to the 1997 Asian currency crisis led to Anwar's arrest the following year -- and later conviction -- on separate sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated.

He was freed in 2004 after that sodomy conviction was overturned and sparked a resurgence by the political opposition, which achieved historic gains against the ruling Barisan Nasional in 2008 general elections.

Anwar says the new allegations are aimed at ruining his reputation to damage opposition chances in fresh elections expected to be called early next year.

Saiful has said he met with Najib before filing a police report on the sodomy accusation, which Anwar's defence team says indicates the case was manufactured.

Najib's government has denied involvement in the case. Najib refused to speak to defence lawyers or be called as a witness in interviews last week ordered by the trial judge.

Anwar's appearance comes after police used tear gas and water cannon to put down a demonstration calling for electoral reform on July 9, the biggest anti-government protest in years.

Libya rebels surge into the centre of Tripoli

TRIPOLI, August 22, 2011 (AFP) - Libyan rebels surged into Tripoli Sunday in a final drive to oust Moamer Kadhafi, seizing swathes of the capital including symbolic Green Square and arresting the strongman's son, Seif al-Islam.

Thousands of residents poured onto the streets to welcome the rebels, congregating at the site which they renamed Martyrs Square near the water front in the centre of Tripoli.

Sky News showed scenes of jubilant crowds gathered there, many waving the red, black and green flag of anti-regime forces, dancing in joy and shouting Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). Some fired rifles into the air.

As many of the men flashed V-for-victory signs and shouted "tell Moamer (Kadhafi) and his sons that Libya has men," a Sky correspondent said people were lighting fires with posters of the Libyan strongman and the solid green flag of the regime that they had torn down.

Similar scenes of jubilation were witnessed in Benghazi, the rebels' bastion in the east, where delirious residents danced and proclaimed the end of the regime of the "tyrant" Kadhafi.

The strongman vowed not to surrender, even as NATO said his regime was crumbling and Britain predicted "the end was near" for the 69-year-old leader, who has kept a tight grip on power in his oil-rich North African nation for almost 42 years.

As the rebels boasted they would take full control of Tripoli during the night, Kadhafi issued his third message of the day, urging the people of Tripoli to "purge the capital."

Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a press conference that 1,300 people have been killed in the rebel assault on the capital, describing the fighting as a "real tragedy."

But there was no independent confirmation of the casualty toll, nor any immediate indication of how much resistance may have been put up against the rebels' entry into the capital.

Ibrahim insisted that Libya's regime "is still strong and thousands of volunteers and soldiers are ready to fight" although the reality on the ground seemed to belie his boasts.

In The Hague, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor confirmed that Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, for whom the ICC had issued arrest warrants for crimes against humanity, is in detention.

"I have received confidential information stating he has been arrested," Luis Moreno-Ocampo told AFP.

"We hope he can soon be in the Hague" to face justice, he said, adding that he planned to contact the "Libyan transitional government" later in the day.

Moreno-Ocampo said the ICC "is ready to help Libyans to deal with their difficult past" and ensure that "no crime remains unpunished".

Earlier, the chairman of Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) told Al-Jazeera television from Benghazi he had "information that Seif al-Islam has been captured".

"He is being kept in a secure place under close guard until he is handed over to the judiciary," Mustafa Abdel Jalil said, without say when or where Kadhafi's son had been captured.

Describing their surprise assault, rebel leaders said an advance party of fighters had arrived by sea in the capital early Sunday and joined sleeper cells of rebels to launch the final drive, codenamed "Mermaid."

Another rebel force advanced on the capital from the west, moving in a convoy of around 100 vehicles as onlookers fired celebratory gunfire into the air, an AFP correspondent said.

By afternoon they had overrun the eastern suburb of Tajura and boasted that they would seize control of the capital during the night.

It was still not clear how much of the capital the rebels had seized, but it appeared they had taken over the headquarters of the Libyana mobile telephone company, located in Tajura.

Libyana clients received a message on their mobiles from the NTC "congratulating the Libyan people for the fall of Moamer Kadhafi."

At the same time, Tripoli residents told AFP that Internet connection had been reestablished for the first time since the outbreak of the revolution in February.

Meanwhile, a rebel party took over an army barracks at a western entrance to Tripoli, raiding the stores of missiles and other ammunition, AFP correspondents at the scene said.

They also released dozens of prisoners held in Maya, 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Tripoli, they said.

A rebel spokesman said the insurgents were also tightening the noose around loyalist forces in the far west of Libya, near the Tunisian border.

Kadhafi throughout Sunday was adamant he would not relinquish power.

He vowed not to surrender and boasted he would "emerge victorious" in the battle for Tripoli.

"We will not, we will not abandon Tripoli to the occupants and their agents. I am with you in this battle," he said in an audio message broadcast on television in the afternoon.

"We do not surrender and, by God's grace, we will emerge victorious."

He called on his supporters to "march on Tajura in tens of thousands to purge the officials of the colonisers," in a reference to the NATO-backed rebels.

Earlier, he had aired a message urging supporters to "march by the millions" to liberate cities held by "traitors and rats."

And in a third audio message broadcast on state television late at night, he said the people should "go out now to purge the capital," adding that there was "no place for the agents of colonialism in Tripoli and Libya."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said early Monday Kadhafi's rule in Libya is "clearly crumbling."

"The Kadhafi regime is clearly crumbling. The sooner Kadhafi realises that he cannot win the battle against his own people, the better -- so that the Libyan people can be spared further bloodshed and suffering," he said in a statement.

Chief NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu earlier told AFP that NATO air strikes since March, mandated under a UN resolution aimed at protecting civilians, had succeeded in diminishing Kadhafi's military capabilities.

"What you are seeing tonight is the cumulative effect, over time, of the eroded capabilities of the regime," Lungescu said, citing more than 4,000 military targets damaged or destroyed in the last four months.

"The Help" tops box office

LOS ANGELES, August 21, 2011 (AFP) - "The Help" about a Southern white woman who writes a book about black women employed as maids and housekeepers in pre-Civil Rights era America, topped the weekend box office, industry estimates showed Sunday.

The Disney movie, which has received mixed reviews, moved up from second place, taking in nearly $20.5 million in its second week out to knock "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" from the top spot, according to tracker Exhibitor Relations.

The prequel to the 1968 classic "Planet of the Apes," earned $16.3 million over the weekend, bringing its three week gross to $133.7 million.

"Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World," was third with $12 million in ticket sales its first week in theaters.

Not far behind in fourth place, "Conan the Barbarian," featuring little known Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa in the old Arnold Schwarzenegger role in this remake of the beefcake classic, took in $10 million.

"Fright Night," another new release by Disney, was fifth with 8.3 million dollars in ticket receipts.

Dropping to sixth from fourth place was live-action and animation flick "The Smurfs," starring Neil Patrick Harris, which pulled in $8 million its fourth week out.

"Final Destination 5," the black comedy in which good-looking people are methodically killed off, fell from third to seventh place, bringing in $7.7 million.

"30 Minutes or Less," starring Jesse Eisenberg of "The Social Network" as a pizza delivery guy forced to rob a bank, sank to eighth place, earning $6.3 million in its second week in theaters.

Making the top-ten list its first week in theaters was "One Day," with Anne Hathaway, which follows the arc of an affair over the lives of two young lovers. It came in ninth with earnings of $5.1 million.

In 10th was the romantic comedy "Crazy, Stupid Love," at $2.5 million.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2," dropped out of the top ten for the first time, after raking in $357.3 million in a six week run that broke multiple box office records.