Japan approves $1.16-trillion draft budget

TOKYO, December 24, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's cabinet approved Saturday a 90.334 trillion yen ($1.16 trillion) budget for the 2012 fiscal year, with a record 49 percent financed by bonds even as the country struggles to rein in its massive public debt.

Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Japan had reached its "limit" in relying on debt and said he was aware the global community was watching him in light of the serious debt woes in Europe.

Under the draft budget, to be submitted to parliament next year, the government would issue fresh bonds worth 44.2 trillion yen in the year from April, aggravating Japan's public debt, which at nearly double its GDP is the worst among industrialised nations.

The proposed budget is technically 2.2 percent smaller than the original budget for the ongoing year to March.

But local media said the budget in reality is the largest ever, worth more than 96 trillion yen, when key items accounted for in separate budgetary steps are included, such as money needed to rebuild the tsunami-hit northeast.

The finance minister said a thorough reform of tax and budget were necessary to ensure provision of public services and to regain confidence of the international community as the nation continues to accumulate debt.

"I think that Japan's budget-making processes and its reliance on public debt have reached their limits," Azumi told a news conference.

The budget draft shows Japan's dire fiscal situation with estimated tax revenue of 42.346 trillion yen, which falls short of the planned bond issuance for a third straight year.

Debt-servicing costs are estimated to be 21.944 trillion yen, a quarter of the planned budget and 51.8 percent of estimated tax revenue.

The draft budget leaves out 3.775 trillion yen to be used for reconstruction of the quake and tsunami-hit region and 2.682 trillion yen "reconstruction bonds".

In an unusual budgetary move, the government has also decided to issue 2.6-trillion-yen worth of special bonds for the pension fund to cover payments the government is supposed to make to pensioners next fiscal year.

The special bonds will not be accounted in the main budget and seemingly reduce the amount of bond issuance.

Azumi stressed the need to raise the five-percent consumption tax to pay for expanding pension costs as Japan's working-age population shrinks.

"I'd like (the Japanese public) to allow us to raise the consumption tax and overhaul the tax-revenue structure to make ourselves fully prepared to look after a continuously ageing society and somehow reverse the falling birth rates," he said.

South China town unrest cools after dialogue

BEIJING, December 24, 2011 (AFP) - Tenuous calm returned Saturday to a south China town that was the scene of violent clashes between police and protestors this week, after local residents said officials had agreed to a dialogue.

Locals of Haimen township who had gathered for a fourth day on Friday to protest against a planned power plant expansion -- throwing bricks and getting hit by police tear gas -- said the peace could be temporary.

"It is quiet today so far, but I don't know if this will last this afternoon," a travel agent who gave only his surname, Lin, told AFP.

State-run local television on Friday night broadcast a message from nearby Shantou City Communist Party officials promising at least a temporary stop to plans to expand state-run Huaneng Power's coal-fired plant, Lin said.

"The party secretary of the discipline and inspection committee in Shantou said on TV last night that this power plant will be stopped temporarily. He didn't say they will give up the plan. He was just trying to calm the people."

Another resident who declined to give his name said, "It is quiet now and we have temporarily accepted the government's suggestions after the dialogue between us and the government."

No sign of the Shantou officials' reported promise appeared on the local government web site and a government duty officer reached by telephone said he did not know about the reported dialogue or any agreement with local residents.

Friday television footage from broadcaster Cable TV in nearby Hong Kong showed riot police firing gas cannisters towards a crowd of residents gathered on a highway.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said Friday that around 500 people had gathered for a fourth day of protests against the planned expansion of the plant.

The crowd, which was smaller than the thousands of protestors residents said had gathered on Tuesday and Wednesday, dispersed Friday evening, Xinhua said, after talks between government officials and town representatives.

Some residents told AFP that a 15-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman had been killed in violence on Tuesday, but a local official quoted by Xinhua denied any deaths.

A protest in the nearby village of Wukan attracted worldwide media attention.

Wukan villagers ended their long stand-off with authorities on Tuesday after a senior provincial official pledged to free three detained protest leaders and investigate their grievances.

US girl reunited with father after 4 years in Japan

CHICAGO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Nearly four years after his ex-wife spirited their daughter away to Japan and blocked nearly all his attempts to see her, a Wisconsin doctor welcomed his little girl home Friday -- just in time for Christmas.

"My heart is pounding, I am very nervous. But ready," Moises Garcia wrote on his Facebook page as he waited for Karina to clear customs and a psychological evaluation at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

"It is all emotional! I can see the picture passing in my mind of all these 4 years. I get almost tears. I just don't know how to react when I see her first. I will do my best."

Garcia fought passionately to get his daughter back after her mother, Emiko Inoue, took five-year-old Karina to Japan in February 2008.

He documented the three visitations he was granted by a Japanese court and a surprise visit he made to Karina's school on parent's day on a website set up to show his now nine-year-old daughter how hard he fought for her and how much he missed her.

It seemed like yet another hopeless case until Inoue flew to Hawaii in April to renew her US residency.

Customs agents spotted a flag on her file and she was arrested on child abduction charges.

Inoue spent months in a Wisconsin jail until she reached a plea deal with prosecutors: her parents would send Karina home to her father in time for Christmas and Inoue would be given probation instead of years in jail.

It is the first time that a US child abducted by a Japanese parent was returned to the United States with the aid of the court system.

Japan is the only member of the Group of Eight industrialized powers that is not part of a 1980 convention that requires countries to return wrongfully held children to their countries of usual residence.

Mindful of international criticism, Japan has agreed in principle to sign the Hague treaty. But the move would only apply to future cases and not to the more than 120 ongoing cases in which US parents are seeking children in Japan.

Japanese courts virtually never award custody to foreign parents.

"To date, the Office of Children's Issues does not have a record of any cases resolved through a favorable Japanese court order or through the assistance of the Japanese government," the US State Department said on its website.

Congressman Christopher Smith, who has been active for years on child abduction cases, welcomed the news of Karina's return but said the case was an anomaly as her mother had returned to the United States.

"Our hope is that this is an additional wake-up call for the Japanese government that they need to move expeditiously to resolve these cases," Smith told AFP.

"Other parents are still spending another Christmas living in agony as their children remain unlawfully detained by abducting parents," said Smith, a Republican from New Jersey.

Smith, the author of landmark legislation a decade ago against human trafficking, said he planned to move ahead next year on a bill that he hoped would give the US government greater tools to resolve abduction cases.

Under the legislation, the United States would be required to assess every country's efforts on child abductions -- regardless of whether it is party to the Hague convention -- and potentially impose sanctions for poor records.

"What this does is make it a country-to-country fight rather than David vs. Goliath," Smith said.

Advocates hope the case will set a precedent that can help hundreds of parents reunited with children who have been spirited abroad.

"The fact that we finally cracked that iceberg is going to benefit cases around the world, not just with Japan but with other nations," Patrick Braden, the head of advocacy group Global Future, told AFP.

The US State Department said it has been in contact with Japanese authorities and the Garcia family over the case.

US diplomats "are providing all appropriate assistance," said State Department spokeswoman Kelly McKellogg, who declined to provide specific details on the case due to privacy considerations.

"Our highest priority is the welfare of US citizens overseas and this is particularly true for children, who are our most vulnerable citizens and cannot speak on their own behalf," she told AFP.

Some 1,022 parents seeking the return of 1,492 US children who were taken abroad sought help from the State Department in 2010.

Data to be a defining tech trend in 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, December 24, 2011 (AFP) - The start of this year was marked by a tech industry obsession with where to put growing mountains of information gathered online and by sensors increasingly woven into modern lifestyles.

External drives boasted seemingly unfillable capacities and companies touted services for storing bits and bytes at massive data centers in the Internet "cloud."

As 2012 approaches, focus has turned to searching for trends, patterns and other useful insights about people's preferences and behaviors that might be buried in troves of data.

"Big analytics toward the end of the year became the big term and into next year it will be the big term," independent Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle told AFP on Friday.

"Analytics is really the core of what will be happening in everything from medical research to advertising."

The theme for this year's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco was unlocking the power of "big data," and the topic was dissected by top Internet company executives at an array of industry gatherings.

"Analyzing data can tell you want resonates and what doesn't," Enderle said. "Applied to elections it could be the difference between winners and losers."

An IBM computer called "Watson" that made headlines by beating a human Jeopardy! television quiz show champion at his own game demonstrated the power of data analytics, according to the analyst.

"Could you imagine Watson used for legal or medical research?" Enderle asked. "You can do some amazing things by drawing conclusions from information you already have but couldn't make heads or tales of before now."

He predicted that analytics would drive major breakthroughs in the years ahead.

Large businesses out to recapture the intimacy of running small shops in tune with local customers are turning to a startup that gleans insights about people from cold, hard data.

Collective(i) will come out of stealth mode in January with a unique service that helps businesses better understand even their smallest customers through real-time data analysis.

"We are bringing analytics and business intelligence to the masses," said Collective(i) chief executive Stephen Messer.

"What Ford's assembly line did for cars we are doing for analytics," he said.

The New York City-based firm operated by Cross Commerce Media has been in test mode for seven months, winning fans such as US gift service 1-800-Flowers and flash-sale website Gilt.

"At the end of the day, what I am always trying to do is re-create the relationship we had with customers when we started with one flower shop in Manhattan in 1976," said 1-800-Flowers president Chris McCann.

"Collective(i) has given me the ability to do that in a different way than has been done before," continued McCann, who was 15 years old when he joined his older brother in their first florist shop.

While analysis companies typically present clients with charts showing break-downs of market or sales data, Collective(i) figures out why numbers turn out as they do.

Messer gave the examples of deducing that people buy more macaroni-and-cheese when the outside temperature dips below a certain temperature, or that folks see the dish as a prime alternative to soup.

Stores can tailor ad pitches or promotions to the weather as well as their customers, he explained.

"Others give you the facts, we give you the 'why'," Messer said.

"What it means is that companies are listening to their customers again and not just pitching you products you don't want," he contended.

Analytics will let companies more shrewdly target money spent on advertising, potentially saving money in the multi-billion-dollar ad market.

Tax victory in hand, Obama heads to Hawaii

WASHINGTON, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama embarked on his year-end Hawaiian vacation Friday, trading the political maelstrom of Washington -- where he just earned a bruising tax victory -- for some sun and surf in his home state.

A US Marine helicopter swooped down to the South Lawn of the White House just minutes after Obama signed legislation extending a much-debated payroll tax-cut extension.

The chopper then flew the president to nearby Andrews Air Force Base where he boarded Air Force One for the flight to Hawaii.

Obama had delayed plans to join his wife and daughters for their annual Christmas and New Year vacation in Hawaii due to the standoff over 
extension of a payroll tax cut for some 160 million Americans.

The last-minute legislation, which extends the tax break for two months and also extends unemployment benefits, allowed Obama to end the year on a triumphant note as he contemplates his bid for reelection in November 2012, after spending most of 2011 being thwarted by Republicans.

Lithuania, Hitachi sign initial nuclear plant deal

VILNIUS, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Lithuania and Japan's Hitachi on Friday signed a preliminary deal on the building of a new nuclear energy facility to replace a plant closed in 2009 in the Baltic state under an EU agreement.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius told reporters the two sides "agreed on the content of the concession agreement and its main components" with the final deal expected to be approved next year.

In July, Lithuania invited Hitachi in alliance with General Electric to start talks on building a new plant, rejecting a bid by the US-based Westinghouse Electric, owned by Japan's Toshiba Corporation.

The move breathed a new life into the programme which was thrown into doubt in November 2010 when Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) unexpectedly withdrew.

The project also involves fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia after Poland decided to "freeze" its participation.

Visaginas nuclear power plant is meant to be online by 2020, generating 1,300 Megawatts, with an investment put at up to 5.0 billion euros ($6.7 billion).

Lithuania closed its only nuclear power plant, a Soviet-era facility near Visaginas in the Baltic state's northeast, in December 2009, under the terms of its European Union entry five years earlier.

The old plant provided 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity, forcing the country to boost gas-fired power output as a result.

Lithuania still relies on Russia for all its natural gas.

Its ties with its communist-era master have been rocky since independence and bas been locking horns with Russian gas giant Gazprom over pricing this year.

In another Soviet hangover, Lithuania lacks power-supply links with Western Europe.

China frees two more village protest leaders

BEIJING, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Two villagers detained for leading protests against land seizures in southern China were released on Friday, witnesses said, after government concessions ended a long stand-off.

The residents of Wukan ended a stand-off with the local government on Wednesday after a senior provincial official said their complaints about land grabs were "reasonable" and agreed to release three detained protest leaders.

Hong Ruichao and Zhuang Liehong were released on bail on Friday, a day after fellow detainee Zhang Jiancheng returned home, a Wukan resident told AFP.

The three villagers have been released "pending a trial", the official Xinhua news agency said, citing local police.

"They seem to have lost a few kilograms but otherwise they look fine," said the resident, Chen Lianju. Chen said he had heard "rumours" that the three would have to stand trial.

Authorities have said the body of a fourth detainee who died in police custody will be released to his family under an agreement reached between village representatives and provincial authorities.

The government has said the 42-year-old man, Xue Jinbo, suffered a heart attack, while family members who saw the body said they believed he had been beaten to death.

All four men were detained on December 9 on charges of vandalism during riots in September in which villagers angered by years of land grabs stormed a police station and attacked police vehicles.

The detentions and the subsequent death of Xue led to a stand-off between authorities and the people of Wukan, who drove their Communist party leaders out of the village and elected their own government.

Taiwan industrial output in first drop in two years

TAIPEI, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan's industrial output fell in November for the first time in over two years, as production for electronic components was cut back on weak overseas demand, the government said Friday.

The November figure fell 3.55 percent year-on-year, in the first contraction since it shrank nearly nine percent year-on-year in August 2009, and also dropped 1.32 percent from October, the economic ministry said.

Taiwan's trade-dependent economy has shown signs of weakness in recent months as demands slowed from its major markets in the United States, China, and the debt crisis-hit Europe.

The island's export orders in November grew at their slowest pace in 27 months on weakening demand for its signature high-tech products.

Taiwan's aims to reach economic growth of 4.3 percent for 2012, according to top economic officials, although the government has lowered its 2011 forecast to 4.51 percent from 4.56 percent as the global economy slows.

China to cut railway spending in 2012: Xinhua

BEIJING, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - China will cut spending on its railways next year, state media said Friday, after authorities borrowed heavily to fund the rapid expansion of the country's massive network.

The railways ministry will invest 400 billion yuan ($63 billion) on rail infrastructure in 2012, the official Xinhua news agency said, down from an estimated 469 billion yuan this year and 700 billion yuan in 2010.

The cash-strapped ministry is sinking under a mountain of debt after borrowing to finance railway projects and some banks have stopped lending it money, state media said previously.

Xinhua said last month that the ministry will receive 200 billion yuan in financial support to help fund projects, amid reports that more than 80 percent of projects currently being built are facing construction delays.

Many projects face a one-year delay in completion, previous reports said.

The railway ministry was 2.1 trillion yuan in debt at the end of June, bringing its debt-to-assets ratio to nearly 59 percent.

China has developed its vast transport network at breakneck speed, building the world's largest high-speed rail system from scratch in less than a decade.

But the government has been accused of overlooking safety in its rush to develop, most notably after the deadly July high-speed rail crash near Wenzhou city and a metro collision in Shanghai in September that injured nearly 300.

In the weeks following the July crash, the government announced a halt to new train projects.

The planned budget cuts come weeks before millions of Chinese board trains and buses to journey home for the Lunar New Year celebrations at the end of January, in the world's biggest annual human migration.

Malaysian lawmaker jailed over graft

KUALA LUMPUR, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - A powerful lawmaker from Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling party was convicted by a Malaysian court Friday of corruption and sentenced to a year in jail.

Najib came to power in 2009 with a pledge to tackle corruption which is endemic in Malaysian politics and society, and a key factor behind the government's disastrous performance in 2008 elections.

High Court Judge Wira Mohtarudin Baki found Mohamad Khir Toyo -- a former chief minister of central Selangor state -- guilty of abusing his position to buy land in 2007. He also ordered the confiscation of Balinese-style mansion.

"Only a fine is not enough in this case ... the (former) head of a state deserves a jail sentence. Hence the court orders a 12 month jail term from today," he was quoted as saying by the official Bernama news agency.

"A suitable punishment has to be meted out so that those holding important public positions will be cautious when carrying out their duties," he said.

Khir, however, remains free pending an appeal.

Charles Santiago, an opposition lawmaker told AFP that while prison sentences for top officials guilty of graft are rare in Malaysia, Khir's term is a sign that the Prime Minister is trying to curry favour with the public ahead of polls.

"It is rare for the courts to jail powerful people. It only signals that elections could be held within the next three months," he said.

Najib has indicated that he will call for elections within months.

The prime minister's ruling coalition has governed Muslim-majority Malaysia since independence in 1957, but the opposition alliance has capitalised recently on concerns over corruption, the economy, and authoritarian rule.

Local Indian court summons Google, Yahoo!: report

NEW DELHI, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - An Indian magistrates court has issued a summons to 21 internet sites, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo! to answer charges of circulating "obscene, lascivious content," a report said Friday.

The summons comes amid a push by the Indian government to force major Internet players into filtering out "unacceptable" content, including faked naked pictures of political leaders, and religiously sensitive images.

Acting on a private suit, New Delhi metropolitan magistrate Sudesh Kumar said Internet companies were clearly circulating "obscene, lascivious content which ... tends to deprave and corrupt," The Press Trust of India reported.

"There are certain degrading and obscene photographs of various political leaders belonging to different political parties and photographs pasted and the language used is also obscene, filthy and degrading," Kumar said.

Earlier this month, Communications Minister Kapil Sibal pledged a crackdown on "unacceptable" online content, saying companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Facebook had ignored India's demands to screen images and data before they are uploaded.

His comments provoked anger and derision among Indian Internet users, with experts arguing that such demands could not be enforced and smacked of state censorship.

Sibal rejected any suggestion of an assault on free speech, saying the government had pleaded for self-regulation by companies such as Google to filter out deeply "insulting" material.

He highlighted examples of faked pictures of naked politicians, including Congress Party head Sonia Gandhi.

India has in the past moved to block the publication of books and other material seen as disrespectful to Gandhi, or other members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated India's political life since independence.


China rejects link to Patriot missiles in Finland

BEIJING, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Beijing on Friday denied that a ship docked in Finland with more than 69 surface-to-air Patriot missiles on board had anything to do with China.

Finnish authorities are investigating after the missiles, produced by US firm Raytheon, were discovered on a British-registered ship bound for the Chinese port city of Shanghai.

Finnish customs are investigating the case as one of illegal export of defence material. Two Ukrainians -- the ship's captain and the first mate -- have been detained.

"I don't see the ship transporting the missiles having anything to do with China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular briefing on Friday.

"I don't know why there is always someone who likes to link certain kinds of things with China and I have noticed the relevant report and I hope to clear up this event."

Germany's defence ministry has said the missiles came from its military and were destined for South Korea. A spokesman said the shipment was a "legal sale on the basis of an accord between two states at the government level".

He said the transaction had received an official export authorisation and was reported to customs authorities.

Police fire tear gas at crowd in south China

BEIJING, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Police on Friday fired tear gas at hundreds of people gathered in a southern Chinese town that was the scene of violent protests earlier this week over the expansion of a power plant.

Television footage broadcast in Hong Kong showed police in full riot gear fire gas cannisters towards a crowd of residents gathered on a main highway, who covered their faces and fled.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said around 500 people were on the highway for a fourth day of protests against the expansion of the coal-fired plant in the southern town of Haimen in Guangdong province.

Residents contacted by telephone told AFP there had been several incidences of tear gas being fired on Friday, including at students who gathered outside a police station to demand the release of protesters detained earlier in the week. Xinhua has said five people were detained over vandalism.

But there was no evidence of the large-scale protests seen on Tuesday and Wednesday, when thousands of people took to the streets, leading to violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

Some residents said a 15-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman had been killed in Tuesday's violence, but a local official quoted by Xinhua denied anyone had died.

Residents of the coastal town say harmful pollution from the power plant has caused a rise in cancer cases and a reduction in the number of fish they are able to catch.

After Tuesday's protests, the local government announced that the plant's expansion would be suspended pending a review by higher authorities.

But residents contacted by AFP on Wednesday and Thursday were either unaware of the decision or doubted the government's sincerity.

Haimen residents told AFP by telephone on Friday they wanted foreign journalists to go to the town, after a protest in the nearby village of Wukan attracted worldwide media attention.

Several said there were tens of thousands of protesters on the streets on Friday, but television footage and photographs from the scene showed much smaller numbers.

The villagers of Wukan ended their long stand-off with authorities on Tuesday after a senior provincial official pledged to free three detained protest leaders and investigate their grievances.

Shanghai cements position as world's top container port

SHANGHAI consolidated its title as the world's largest container port as the city today celebrates becoming the world's first port to handle more than 30 million twenty-foot equivalent units this year.

Shanghai's container throughput is expected to stand at 31.5 million TUEs this year, company executives said at today's ceremony.

Shanghai overtook Singapore to become the world's largest container port in 2010 as it benefited from growing export volumes from inland regions.

In the first 10 months of this year, Shanghai's port handled 23.9 million TEUs, just ahead of Singapore Port's 23.56 million TEUs.

The State Council, China's cabinet, in April 2009 mapped out detailed guidelines to build Shanghai into an international financial center and a global shipping hub by 2020.

Further favorable policies include a business tax exemption on international shipping revenues for shippers registered at the Yangshan Deep Water Port. Exemptions were also given to logistics companies and warehouse operators at the port.

The port operator will also introduce more logistics services as it seeks to bring in more value-added income beyond handling cargo and containers.

'The Nutcracker' rings in holiday cheer for Americans

WASHINGTON, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - When "The Nutcracker" comes to US theaters, the two-act ballet that enchants children around the world ushers in the Christmas season, on an equal footing with Santa Claus and decorated fir trees.

"It's just an American tradition... When you hear about 'The Nutcracker,' Christmas is right there," said Barb Wilbur, a teacher in Kennewick, Washington state, who has taken her grandchildren to the show for the past seven years.

From late November, the mice and wooden soldiers that fill Tchaikovsky's ballet are everywhere: in theatres, but also on television, in Christmas storefront displays, games, books and even gift wrapping, coffee mugs and stuffed animals.

On December 13, 560 movie theatres broadcast live a New York City Ballet production, which was screened the next day on television. And the ballet is currently being performed in 121 American cities with a total of 751 different shows, according to a Los Angeles Times count.

The infatuation took off after George Balanchine showcased his 1954 take on the ballet for the New York City Ballet, although the dance spectacular first arrived on US stages in San Francisco 10 years earlier.

Many other interpretations of the ballet adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" story have since graced stages across the United States.

This year alone, Las Vegas saw jazz versions, Philadelphia a Harlem style take with black dancers, Virginia an urban dance, Vermont a hip-hop extravaganza and even an adults-only "Nutcracker Burlesque" has played in Portland, Maine.

Hundreds more local productions have been featured at dance schools, city workshops or end-of-year school shows where children get to dive into the many roles available.

-- 'It's magical' --

For all its success today, the ballet's December 1892 premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg got a less than enthusiastic reception. It was not until the post-World War II period that Tchaikovsky's creation drew a huge following, with countless ballet companies taking on the challenge.

Children -- and parents alike -- delight in the story of young Clara, who receives a painted wooden nutcracker shaped like a soldier for Christmas.

At night, the toy comes to life and fights against the mice until the nutcracker-turned-prince defeats the evil mouse king in a battle and carries the little girl to his magical kingdom far, far away.

At the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre & Academy in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Celina and Rafaela Gutierrez, 13 and 11 years old respectively, have danced the ballet every year for the past six years.

The eldest has climbed up the echelons of the production, which has been performed by the dance school every year since 1989.

"She has played different roles -- a mouse, a soldier, an angel, a Chinese girl, an Arabian coffee performer and, this year, she's starring in the role of the little girl Clara," said proud mother Nicole Gutierrez.

For the past two years, Gutierrez herself has played the role of one of the parents in the ballet, "to be with my girls."

"It's magical. It's Christmas. It's a show that is timed perfectly for the holidays and the girls love the ballet, they know all the roles," she said.

It's also a sure bet for dance companies. In many cases, the production, which attracts a bigger audience than other ballets and usually stays in theaters for twice the amount of time, accounts for half of their annual turnover, according to a Wall Street Journal estimate.

"This is a bond, something we do together," said Wilbur. And she has expanded the tradition by giving each of her grandchildren their own nutcracker with their name and the date to mark every Nutcracker outing.

"I hope they will carry on with it when they get married and have kids and grandkids," she added.

Silent movie making big noise in Oscars race

LOS ANGELES, December 2, 2011 (AFP) - "The Artist," a black-and-white homage to the era of silent movies, has a growing number of film insiders talking in Hollywood, where it is increasingly tipped as a leading Oscars hopeful.

The movie by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius won best film and best director this week by the New York Film Critics Circle, lending weight to its hopes for the Academy Awards.

On the same day it secured a best picture nomination for the Independent Spirit Awards, another key pointer to who will vie for a golden statuette at the climax of Hollywood's just-started awards season, in February.

Distributed by The Weinberg Company -- a veteran Oscar-backer which produced last year's Best Film "The King's Speech" -- it tells the story of silent film star George Valentin whose career is torpedoed by the arrival of the "talkies."

As his fortunes plummet, a young dancer and actress who initially idolizes him -- Peppy Miller, who catches his eye, and heart -- is on her way up to Hollywood stardom in the new movies-with-sound era.

Without spoiling the plot, the climax brings the pair back together in a dramatic and touching finale.

Shot in black and white with a remarkable attention to period detail and dance routines recalling the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the movie has won critics' praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Actor Jean Dujardin, who plays Valentin, won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the movie has won a series of other awards in Europe and the United States, before it opened in US cinemas on November 23.

The San Francisco Chronicle called the film "a profound achievement," in a review published Thursday.

"A silent movie -- or rather, a sound film with a music soundtrack -- it evinces such mastery of form that it could easily be mistaken for a real classic," it said.

More recently the movie's director and key cast came to Los Angeles to present it at the American Film Institute (AFI) festival, staying long enough in Hollywood to leave few doubts about their Oscars campaign hopes.

Hazanavicius said that, while silent films were made by many countries in the 1920s including Russia, Germany and France, he decided to pay homage to US movies of the era because "they took most care" in telling stories.

"Feelings described in the masterpieces of that era are human, based on real emotions, and that is what I was looking for," he said.

Dujardin, speaking after the screening at the historic Graumann's Chinese Theatre, said he was inspired by Hollywood icons led by Douglas Fairbanks, "but also Gene Kelly, for the smile and energy, or Clark Gable... for the moustache."

Not content with eyeing prizes for best film, picture and actor, another co-star in the movie -- a dog called Uggie -- is also being touted for an award.

The terrier, Valentin's constant companion throughout the film's emotional roller-coaster ride, already scooped an unofficial award, the Palm Dog, in Cannes.

Film website Movieline this week launched a "Consider Uggie" campaign for the pooch to win more gongs.

"That he and his trainers have yet to receive so much as an honorary nod beyond the Palm Dog prize praising the year's most noteworthy Cannes-ine (ahem) performance is an oversight worth correcting," it wrote.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will announce Oscar nominees on January 24, while the winners will be announced at the annual Hollywood awards season-closing extravaganza on February 26.

Single gene links rare cancers

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2011 (AFP) - Canadian researchers have discovered that a common gene links a number of rare reproductive cancers, a finding that could lead to new approaches for treatment, said a study published on Wednesday.

Ovarian, uterine and testicular cancer were all found to have the same mutation in a gene called DICER, said the research in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Scientists have known about DICER for many years, but its exact role in sparking tumor cells to grow has been unclear.

When the gene mutates, DICER's function is changed "so that it participates directly in the initiation of cancer, but not in a typical 'on-off' fashion," said co-author Gregg Morin, a lead scientist from the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

"DICER can be viewed as the conductor for an orchestra of functions critical for the development and behavior of normal cells," explained co-author Gregg Morin, a lead scientist from the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

"The mutations we discovered do not totally destroy the function of DICER, rather they warp it -- the orchestra is still there but the conductor is drunk."

Researchers are examining whether DICER plays a role in other cancers, and will investigate if mutant DICER can be manipulated to treat the cancers it causes.

Ovarian cancer kills about 15,000 women in the United States each year, and about 22,000 new cases are diagnosed annually.

More than 46,000 cases of uterine cancer and 8,100 deaths arise each year in the United States. Testicular cancer is more rare, with 8,300 new cases per year and 350 US deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

"This breakthrough will be of interest to both the clinical and the fundamental science communities," said Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for the discovery of the structure of genes.

"Huntsman, Morin and colleague's very exciting discovery of specific mutations in DICER, a factor essential for syntheses of small regulatory RNAs in ovarian and other human tumors, could lead to new approaches to treatment."

Toasted planets give hint of solar system's future

PARIS, December 21, 2011 (AFP) - The remains of two planets closely orbiting a dying star some 3,900 light years away have given astronomers a glimpse of what may happen at the demise of our own solar system about five billion years from now.

Named KOI 55.01 and KOI 55.02, the planets orbit a sun that has passed the "red giant" stage -- a star that has burned up most of its fuel and becomes larger and larger, according to the study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

The pair are respectively 76 percent and 87 percent the size of the Earth, but were probably many times larger.

They are likely be the remnants of "gas giant" planets that were roasted by the bloating star's fiery envelope, say the authors.

"KOI 55.01 and KOI 55.02 lie in very close orbits to their host star," said investigator Gilles Fontaine, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Montreal in Canada.

"To be at such a small distance from their giant star, they probably plunged deep into its gas envelope but survived despite the extreme temperature."

The study was published just a day after astronomers reported spotting the first Earth-sized planets in the 16-year-old quest to locate worlds behind the solar system.

At the end of its life, our star could expand as far as Mars, according to some calculations.

"When our sun swells up to become a red giant it will engulf the Earth," said Elizabeth Green of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

"If a tiny planet like the Earth spends a billion years in an environment like that, it will just evaporate. Only planets with masses very much larger than the Earth, like Jupiter or Saturn, could possibly survive."

The new finds were made by the US orbital telescope Kepler, a 600-million-dollar mission which monitors more than 150,000 stars for tiny wobbles in light.

These fluctuations are interpreted as potentially signalling a planet which is passing in front of the star and is thus dimming the light reaching the telescope.

HIV trial is 'breakthough' of 2011

WASHINGTON, December 22, 2011 (AFP) - A landmark clinical trial that showed HIV drugs can be as effective as condoms in preventing transmission of the virus that causes AIDS was declared Science magazine's breakthrough of the year on Thursday.

Other top achievements of 2011 included a Japanese spacecraft's return to Earth with dust from an asteroid, progress toward a malaria vaccine and discoveries about modern humans' gene links to cavemen.

The annual top 10 list by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science, appear in the magazine's December 23 issue.

The lead story of the year was an international trial, coined HPTN 052, which showed that people taking anti-retroviral drugs reduced the risk of heterosexual transmission to partners by 96 percent.

The breakthrough was described by some experts as a tipping point in the fight against AIDS, 30 years after the epidemic first surfaced.

"People were interested in the idea of treatment as prevention, but it created a hurricane-force wind behind the strategy," said lead investigator Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine.

The trial began in 2007, enrolling 1,763 heterosexual couples -- in which one partner was HIV positive -- from Botswana, Brazil, India, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, the United States and Zimbabwe.

The magazine said the trial will have "profound implications for the future response to the AIDS epidemic." HIV/AIDS infects an estimated 33 million people worldwide and killed 1.8 million people in 2009.

"The HPTN 052 results and other recent successes have raised hopes that combining such interventions can now end AIDS epidemics in entire countries, if not the world," the journal said.

The nine other leading advances of 2011:

-- Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft survived a host of technical failures but returned to Earth, albeit three years late, with a dusting of particles from the Itokawa asteroid. An analysis showed that solar wind discolors asteroids.

-- Following 2010 studies that showed Europeans and Asians inherited two to six percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, new analyses showed that breeding with cavemen gave modern humans an immune boost, and raised new questions about whether the dextrous tool-maker Australopithecus sediba is our direct ancestor.

-- Japanese researchers mapped Photosystem II, a protein that plants use to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a structure that could lead to powerful advances in clean energy.

-- Astronomers detected pristine clouds of hydrogen gas much like that from the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Another team finds a star with almost no metals, like the earliest stars in the universe, suggesting pockets of deep space have survived "unscathed amid eons of cosmic violence.

-- Researchers gained a new understanding of the microbes that dwell in the human gut, with some thriving on high-protein diets while others prefer vegetarian fare.

-- The search for the world's first malaria vaccine RTS,S, received a boost with the release of early results from a major clinical trial showing it cut risk by about half in African children.

-- Strange discoveries in deep space included a cluster of six large planets orbiting a star named Kepler 11 about 2,000 light-years from Earth, a gas giants that orbits in the opposite direction of its parent star, 10 planets that seem to orbit no stars and all, and one planet that is orbiting two stars.

-- Industrial chemists designed a host of new porous minerals, called zeolites, which could save money and offer a new boost to the oil and gas industry, air and water purification processes and household laundry detergents.

-- Getting rid of old cells may help improve life quality, according to scientists who using lab mice discovered that clearing these senescent cells from the body can delay cataracts and muscle weakness.

S. Korea, China to discuss Kim's death

SEOUL, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - South Korean and Chinese officials will hold talks in Seoul next week to discuss the situation in North Korea after the death of leader Kim Jong-Il, the foreign ministry said Friday.

First Vice Minister Park Suk-Hwan and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun are expected to meet on Tuesday, a spokeswoman said.

She said the annual strategic talks would give the two countries a chance to discuss the aftermath of Kim's death.

"The meeting is aimed at sharing views on the current situation after the passing of Kim Jong-Il and consulting on the way forward regarding the Korean Peninsula," Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified official as saying.

Efforts to revive six-party negotiations on scrapping the North's nuclear programme would also be discussed, he said.

Seoul's chief nuclear delegate Lim Sung-Nam visited China Thursday and Friday for talks with his counterpart Wu Dawei.

The six-party talks, chaired by China and also involving the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan, have been at a standstill since December 2008.

Negotiations to resurrect them appeared to be making progress before Kim's death last Saturday. Media reports said Pyongyang would agree to suspend its uranium enrichment programme in return for food aid from Washington.

Suspending the uranium programme -- seen as a potential source of bomb-making fuel -- is a key US demand before the six-party talks resume.

The North formally quit the forum in April 2009, one month before its second nuclear test. It had long said it wanted the talks to restart, but without preconditions.

Japan emperor recalls 2011 as 'truly distressing year'

TOKYO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's Emperor Akihito marked his 78th birthday on Friday by recalling a "truly distressing year" but praising the unity of the Japanese people in overcoming March's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disasters.

In his birthday message, the monarch also called on the nation to prepare for any more disasters and reflect on its wartime past to strive for peace.

However, while he did not give his customary news conference owing to a recent illness he released a statement on his "reflections" and appeared with his family on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to greet thousands of well-wishers and give a short speech.

"This has been a truly distressing year, dominated by disasters" he said in his statement, remembering the March 11 catastrophe as well as heavy rains and floods that hit wide areas of the country in the middle of the year.

"However it has been encouraging to note that the people in the afflicted areas are enduring the harsh conditions in evacuation and that many people are volunteering to support the victims," he said.

"I feel that the Japanese people have come together as a nation to squarely face the disaster and do what they can to be of help for the victims."

The 9.0-magnitude quake and monster tsunami ravaged the country's northeast, killing nearly 20,000 people, and crippled a nuclear power plant which has been since leaking radiation into the environment.

Akihito, who ascended to the throne in 1989 following the death of his father Hirohito, has played a role in keeping with his status defined by the US-inspired post-war constitution as a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people."

His role may be largely ceremonial but he is held in deep regard by many Japanese.

The emperor and 77-year-old Empress Michiko travelled to the disasters zones every week for seven weeks since late March, comforting victims at evacuation centres, as they did after past disasters including the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

However, he has been ill recently and last month underwent 18 days of treatment for bronchial pneumonia.

US Internet users not as scam-savvy as they think: study

SAN FRANCISCO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - US Internet users are suckers for online scams, especially if the promised prize is a chance at a hip new gadget such as a tablet computer, according to study results released on Thursday.

More than half of those surveyed in a Ponemon study backed by Internet security firm PC Tools indicated they would reveal mobile phone numbers, email addresses or other information when told they might get something for nothing.

"Even in scenarios where people realize it is too good to be true, they are falling for it," said PC Tools senior manager of online strategy Eric Klein.

"I don't know why people keep falling for it, really," he added.

Cyber crooks have long exploited human nature with scams relying on "social engineering" to get people to reveal secrets such as passwords or unwittingly install computer viruses.

Manipulations can range from telling people they will be entered in prize drawings after filling out detailed surveys or getting them to open booby-trapped files said to contain sexy or graphic imagery.

"The results found a clear difference between how aware consumers think they are of scams and how likely they are to be taken in by the given scenarios," Ponemon Institute researchers concluded.

"It is clear from the findings that the threat posed by scams is still being underestimated."

Scenarios people fell for included offers of supposed free anti-virus software to install in computers and get-rich-quick opportunities, according to Ponemon.

People were particularly susceptible to biting when ploys were baited with promises of chances to win tech prizes such as mobile phone ring tones or tablet computers.

"People in the United States were, frankly, more cheap and looking for something to get out of it," Klein said.

"The idea of getting rich made them more likely to put security aside," he continued.

Versions of the study were also done in Australia and Britain; with Australians being unlikely to fall for ploys while British Internet users were more susceptible but far more wary than those in the United States.

Tablet computers made particularly strong lures in all three countries, according to surveys.

"Whenever those gadgets are being hyped they are trendy things to have," Klein said. "People interpret it as status, so they will go to great lengths to get one."

The holiday season brings with it increased chances for online scams as people hunt for gift bargains and cyber crooks expand arsenals to include false offers of tremendous deals on hot items.

"It is really about tricking people into giving up information," Klein said. "Some of the data is pretty alarming."

People were advised to check for secure "https" website addresses for transactions and to watch for misspellings that could signal a ruse.

Klein recommended avoiding websites with addresses in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, due to the number of scams originating there.
"Take your time, double check what site you are on and look for hints they are not legit," he said.

"Before you give out any personal details make sure it is a real offer."

Australia's Gloucester, China's Yanzhou in tie-up

SYDNEY, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Australia's Gloucester Coal Friday agreed to a merger with China's Yanzhou in a deal valued at some Aus$2.2 billion (US$2.3 billion), a tie-up which will create a major Australia listed coal firm.

China is Australia's largest two-way trade partner and the proposal comes as rapidly industrialising Asia is seeking to shore up a steady and reliably-priced supply of coal, a material vital for steelmaking.

"Gloucester Coal has entered into a merger proposal deed with Yanzhou Coal Mining Company Limited and its wholly owned Australian subsidiary, Yancoal Australia Limited, following an approach from Yanzhou," Gloucester Coal said.

Yanzhou Coal Mining, China's third-largest listed coal miner by output, said the merger reflected the company's ambition to grow its Australian business.

"This merger will increase the capacity and productivity of the company, enlarge the operation scale, improve profit margins and achieve potential synergies of the combined assets," the Chinese firm said in a statement.

Under the proposal, Gloucester's assets, including coal mines in Queensland and New South Wales, will be combined with Yancoal's Australian assets, which also include coal mines and an interest in an export terminal.

Any deal, which comes amid consolidation in Australia's mid-tier coal sector, will require approval by shareholders, Australia's Foreign Investment Review board (FIRB) and is subject to due diligence by both parties.

State-owned Yanzhou had approached Gloucester, which has a market capitalisation of some Aus$1.44 billion, after taking over Australian coal miner Felix Resources in 2009 in a deal worth US$3.2 billion.

Yanzhou had also reportedly been interested in Whitehaven Coal before that company announced a merger with fellow Australian miner Aston Resources, to form an independent coal company worth Aus$5.10 billion.

Under the Gloucester deal, Yanzhou proposes owning 77 percent of the merged company, with the remaining 23 percent held by Gloucester shareholders.

Gloucester shareholders will receive Aus$700 million in cash in a special dividend equal to about Aus$3.20 for each share, meaning the total deal is valued at about Aus$2.2 billion, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

The merger proposal is conditional on the merged company obtaining a listing on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) but already has the approval of Gloucester's major shareholder Noble Group, Gloucester said.

Gloucester said Noble intends to vote its 64.5 percent stake in favour of the merger proposal, subject to the deal's approval by Noble's board of directors and in the absence of a better proposal.

If successful, the reverse takeover will help Yanzhou fulfil a commitment it made to Australian regulators when it acquired Felix Resources in 2009 to float at least 30 percent of its Australian assets by December 2012.

Australia's coal industry is dominated by major global players BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, but smaller firms are being targeted as competition for resources is stoked by rapid industrialisation in China and India.

US-based Peabody Energy, the world's largest private coal miner, snapped up Australia's Macarthur Coal in November in a deal worth almost Aus$5 billion.

Coal is among Australia's top three exports, contributing Aus$43.9 billion to the mining-driven economy last financial year.

Gloucester shares, which last traded at Aus$7.03 before being placed in a trading halt, rose on the news and closed Friday at Aus$8.55.

North Korea to loom large in Japan-China summit

TOKYO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda heads to Beijing on Sunday as the first foreign leader to meet the Chinese leadership after the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il.

President Hu Jintao could use the occasion to assure the international community that Beijing was working to ensure a stable transition of power in its reclusive and impoverished partner, Japanese experts said.

"It is unlikely that China will reveal everything it knows. It is more likely that Chinese leaders will give assurances that they are calling on Pyongyang to ensure stability and order," said Shin Kawashima, associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

Noda's overnight visit was set for December 12 and 13 but rescheduled to Sunday and Monday at China's request, apparently for domestic reasons, which some suggested were to do with its falling on the Nanjing Massacre anniversary.

Noda, who came to power in September, will welcome the chance of more face time with Chinese leaders, as Beijing readies to promote younger leaders, with Vice President Xi Jinping seen as the most likely replacement for Hu.

Noda met with Hu in November on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Honolulu and agreed to make "reciprocal efforts" to enhance ties, often dogged by economic and territorial disputes.

But Kim's death has shifted the agenda from bilateral issues to global worries about nuclear-armed North Korea, where Kim's untested young son Kim Jong-Un appears to be taking the reins of the Stalinist state.

Almost nothing is known about him, including his grasp on the North's military and how he might respond to global calls to open up the country.

"China holds the key for assuring stability in North Korea," said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at Waseda University.

Japan, having no ties with the North, can do little other than support China's engagement with Pyongyang, he said.

"You might call it an achievement if Japan and China only confirm their joint resolve to work together to protect peace and stability in northeast Asia including on the Korean peninsula," he said.

On the bilateral front, the two Asian giants will go over a list of touchy issues, including territorial and energy field disputes in the East China Sea as well as China's increasingly assertive naval posture in the region.

Japan will urge China towards a framework dialogue to set rules for the development of gas fields in the East China Sea, near disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The two are still trying to heal diplomatic wounds inflicted a year ago when China reacted in fury over the arrest of one of its fishermen near the islands after he rammed his ship into Japanese coastguard vessels.

An irate Beijing cut or seriously reduced trade, diplomatic and cultural exchanges until Japan climbed down and released the trawlerman.

The leaders are expected to agree to hold periodic meetings of senior diplomats and defence officials in a bid to avoid similar confrontations.

China is expected to be fairly placatory ahead of the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties in September, an event it wants to pass off smoothly.

"China wants the celebration to end with no troubles. Perhaps China will not offer anything new, but it should be seen as a reflection of their caution," Kawashima said.

Noda and Hu will likely agree on a plan for Japan to purchase Chinese government bonds, a first for an industrial power, in a move that would strengthen financial ties and diversify Tokyo's forex holdings.

From Tokyo's point of view, this will help hedge against exposure to the dollar at a time the yen has remained stubbornly high.

It will also mark a victory for Beijing as it seeks to internationalise its currency.

Noda is also expected to outline his decision to join negotiations on the US-led trans-Pacific partnership (TPP), a potential rival to China's push for a trade pact with ASEAN states and their neighbors, including Japan.

Japan, whose biggest trade partners are China followed by the US, is trying to keep its feet in both camps and maintain access to all key markets in the greater Asia-Pacific region.

Among diplomatic niceties, Noda is also expected to thank China for its assistance in the aftermath of the march earthquake and tsunami, and to ask that Beijing send a pair of pandas to hard-hit Sendai to boost morale.

Room at the inn for Fukushima believers

TOKYO, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Christmas for one homeless pastor and his itinerant flock, forced to flee when Japan's nuclear crisis erupted, will have echoes of its origins this year as they gather in a shelter far from home.

The reverend Akira Sato says he and his 50-strong congregation are expecting an "unforgettable" Christmas a long way from the Fukushima Daiichi Seisho (1st Bible) Baptist Church, which lies in the shadow of the crippled power plant.

"This Christmas will be very special. I will never forget it," said the 54-year-old, who is planning to hold his December 25 service at a church in western Tokyo that has offered temporary refuge.

"I often call myself a homeless pastor," Sato told AFP. "We know we won't be able to remain homeless forever, but we do not yet know where we can go. We are still wandering."

Sato has presided over services at the Fukushima church -- whose name, along with the power plant simply means "first" -- since 1982.

The original church was founded in 1947 by an American Baptist missionary. The congregation rebuilt it in 2008 just five kilometres (three miles) from the atomic plant.

Then on March 11 a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake spawned a towering tsunami that crashed into the power station, knocking out its cooling systems and sending reactors into dangerous meltdown.

Along with tens of thousands of other people, Sato and his flock were ordered to leave their church and their homes, which lie inside a declared 20-kilometre no-go zone as radiation levels soared.

Drawing parallels with Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Sato says he took his parishioners from one church to the next, seeking refuge and something to eat, while caring for elderly believers stricken by pneumonia.

"To me, the first week was like a scene from a movie," he said.

As well as the practical difficulties, the group also faced discrimination over rumours that people from Fukushima had been exposed to radiation and could "infect" others.

"We were told we were dirty simply because we were from Fukushima," Sato said. "We were so frustrated. We were so sad. The disaster destroyed everything."

After nine months of wandering -- during which three parishioners died -- the group has ended up at a church and an adjacent cottage in Tokyo.

Although Christians only account for around only one percent of the country's population, the Japanese capital in December is awash with Christmas cheer.

Buildings and trees are decked with lights and festive music rings through the shops as people buy presents for friends and family.

The liveliness of Tokyo is a welcome relief after the misery of 2011. But, says Sato, it has not all been bad.

"We have lost a lot of things, but we have also gained something we didn't have before," which is a real sense of gratitude, Sato said.

"We were nearly crying with joy when we were first given blankets and warm food," he said.

"Most of all, we are still alive. We had thought we needed a lot of things to live. But that appears to me to have been an illusion now," he added.

"I told myself that this is the reason I became a priest, for this day. As the Bible says: God gives us nothing we cannot bear."

Sato said the nuclear disaster could have been a warning from God about human greed.

"When I temporarily returned to our church in protective gear, the town appeared unchanged.

"Dogs were running and cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Everything was as it used to be. Except for one thing. There were no people. 

It's like Paradise Lost," he said, referring to the Christian belief that mankind was ordered out of heaven for disobeying God.

"Maybe we sought affluence too much," he said. "Maybe we were too greedy. We could have gone too far. God may be telling us, 'Come back to Fukushima again after you have calmed down.'"

But with the decommissioning of reactors expected to take anything up to 40 years and warnings that tracts of land around the power station will be uninhabitable for decades, Sato has decided he must re-establish his church on higher ground.

He intends to borrow money for a new building in Izumi, southern Fukushima, some 60 kilometres away from their old home.

He plans to name it "Fukushima Daiichi Bible Church, Izumi Chapel," and to build it facing the direction of their old one.

"We need hope and a home," Sato said.

"People cannot live on bread alone. This new church is a symbol of revival. We will sing our hymns every week looking towards our hometown."

The church's multilingual website, where donations can be made to help with building costs is: www.f1church.com

Russian TV channel sticks to its guns in time of troubles

MOSCOW, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - When protests first shook Russia following  disputed December 4 parliamentary elections, one privately-owned channel reported the news amid a general information vacuum on state television.

With a new mass opposition protest planned for Saturday, the Dozhd (Rain) channel will again be one of the main sources of information for viewers tired of the ultra-cautious approach of state-controlled media.

Dozhd calls the polls "The elections that changed us", uses clips of young protestors to fill space between programmes, and runs specials about the best ways to dress and craft protest signs.

Its audience increased fivefold through the first week of the protests.

Created in April 2010, Dozhd broadcast only through the Internet through its website (tvrain.ru) for several months before gradually acquiring coverage of about 8 million homes through Russian satellite operators.

"Our goal was to create TV for people who are tired of TV, who are not watching the regular channels," Dozhd editor Mikhail Zygar told AFP. "It's a channel for people who boast of not having a television set, he said.

What such people wanted was more live programmes, analysis, and discussions about politics, he said, vehemently denying that Dozhd is an opposition channel. "We invite the opposition and (ruling party) United Russia, that's how channels should work."

It is clear however, that Dozhd is very different from Russia's federal channels, and its growing influence may be a risk in a politically turbulent period.

Dozhd's offices in Moscow's trendy neighbourhood in the city centre look like headquarters of an advertising firm or a fashion magazine.

Details like a hot pink alarm clock the size of a basketball and a papier-mache bust of Lenin decorated with green polka dots punctuate the industrial loft in a former chocolate factory.

As a young presenter was preparing for his standup in front of the green screen, an assistant untucked his t-shirt from his jeans for a more casual look.

Some 15 minutes later, a passionate argument over Rain's round table about election violations involved liberal opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Mitrokhin, and Ilya Ponomarev.

It's a stark contrast from Russia's main television networks, most of which are state-controlled.

"We are the only channel with live broadcasting," Zygar said. "There is a program on Rossiya (state channel) that is called Live Broadcasting, but it is pre-recorded."

"We want Russia to be a normal, comfortable, free and democratic country," Zygar said of the channel's values. "We work and invest here, and we want our viewers to have quality television."

Broadly speaking, the channel's audience are the young Russians who are increasingly using the Internet, said television critic Anna Kachkayeva. "It talks in a modern language to people who were brought up with Internet freedoms, that are not conservative, that travel."

Its general director is Natalya Sindeyeva, who is also the co-owner of Moscow radio station Silver Rain.

Fans of Dozhd once included Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, who came to the studio on a visit in May, taking 40 minutes to tour the premises after a government meeting next door.

"He came in through a back door, and the first thing he saw was a giant poster of (jailed oil tycoon Mikhail) Khodorkovsky in the kitchen,"said Zygar.    

"It's always been there and we thought it would be silly to remove it. He smiled and said -- I guess I have come to the right place. I have no idea what he meant."

After Rain's coverage of the protests, Medvedev dropped it from his Twitter contacts, which generated laughs from the channel's Internet-savvy fans and worry among industry experts.

"They are risking seriously," said Arina Borodina, a media critic at Kommersant daily.

"Since the election, they became extremely popular, they raised the level of audience's trust, and I fear that something will happen to them."

"Live television is always a risk, especially during election time and active political life, which is now truly active," she said. When a channel presents the full picture, "the authorities never like it."

Malaysia Airlines cuts more routes to stem losses

KUALA LUMPUR, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Flag carrier Malaysia Airlines on Friday said it would cut four more routes in Asia, a week after announcing a suspension to some global destinations as it tries to return to profit.

The airline, which has struggled to stay in the black in recent years, unveiled a business plan last week aimed at becoming profitable by 2013 that would include a route "rationalisation" but did not name the affected routes.

It said it would put a halt to trips from Kota Kinabalu to Osaka and Haneda in Japan, to Perth and to Seoul. The carrier added that the suspensions would come into effect between January and February.

"This suspension is until further notice and is part of our regional network consolidation involving single-aisle aircraft operations," Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the airlines' chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The airline last week said routes servicing Rome, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Karachi, Dubai, the Saudi Arabian city of Dammam, and the city of Surabaya in Indonesia, will be dropped from January.

It plans to instead bolster services to major destinations in Asia that have better prospects.

In the third quarter of this year, the airline posted its third straight quarterly loss, owing to high fuel costs and increased competition.

Bangladesh cracks down on boat migrants to Malaysia

DHAKA, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Bangladesh has launched a crackdown on groups smuggling economic migrants and ethnic Rohingya refugees out of the country to Malaysia, via a perilous and sometimes fatal sea crossing.

According to police, dozens of wooden boats overloaded with Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants, have attempted the approximately 3,200 kilometre (2,000 mile) journey since the monsoon rains ended in October.

Last week a boat carrying 120 people -- mostly ethnic Rohingyas -- capsized in the Bay of Bengal, said Colonel Zahid Hasan of the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB).

"Some 100 people have survived, we learned from fishermen, but the rest are missing and presumed drowned," he told AFP.

Since the accident, a series of BGB raids in the southeast coastal towns of Teknaf and Sabrum, which border Myanmar and host a large population of Rohingya refugees, have prevented a number of boats from illegally setting sail.

Described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities on earth, thousands of Muslim Rohingyas -- who are not recognised as citizens in Myanmar -- stream across the border into Muslim-majority Bangladesh every year.

Bangladesh recognises 28,000 of them as registered refugees, who live in two official UN camps near the border. This figure is a fraction of the 200,000 to 300,000 "unofficial" refugees, according to government estimates.

The Rohingyas are driven by a sense of "utter frustration" to attempt the boat trip to Malaysia, said Mojibur Rahman, a registered refugee at the UN's Kutupalong refugee camp.

"For many, the risky sea journey is better than the squalor and near starvation in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. A lot of Rohingyas know that the trip is like suicide. But do they have any choice?," he told AFP.

Bangladesh stopped a UN-managed program to help Rohingya refugees resettle in third countries last year, said Rahman, who estimated that at least 3,000 Rohingyas had embarked on the sea crossing to Malaysia since late October.

They have been joined by a large number of impoverished Bangladeshis living in southeast coastal villages, who see Malaysia as their best -- and closest -- opportunity for carving out a new life.

The vast majority hope to secure unregistered work as manual labourers on construction sites.

"Traffickers charge only around 20,000 taka ($300) for a boat ride to Malaysia, which is at least 15 times cheaper than the migration fees being charged by recruiting agencies," said Teknaf police chief Mahbubul Haq.

Earlier this year, Malaysia announced an amnesty for more than half a million Bangladeshi illegal migrants.

The deal was only valid for two weeks in July, but still triggered a surge in the number of people willing to risk the sea crossing.

Nearly 200 people -- half of them Rohingyas -- have been arrested and some 10 boats seized since the latest wave of migration began in early November, Haq said.

"We have put undercover agents along the border. They are tipping us off to any moves by traffickers to get Rohingyas and Bangladeshis into the boats to attempt the journey.

"But I am afraid many boats may have evaded our crackdown and set sail anyway," he said.

As well as the threat of capsize and drowning, the migrants also risk arrest and imprisonment by the Thai authorities, if their boats stray into Thai waters.

In January 2009, the Thai authorities were accused of seizing boats laden with Rohingya refugees, towing them back out to sea and abandoning them.

Allegations of mistreatment surfaced after nearly 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some claiming to have been beaten by Thai soldiers before being set adrift.

Taiwan to offer $266 mn to help small companies

TAIPEI, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan said Friday it will put an extra Tw$8 billion ($266 million) into a credit guarantee fund aimed at helping smaller companies as the global economy slows.

The fund, designed to help small and medium enterprises short of collateral to secure external financing, will provide an additional coverage of Tw$112 billion in loans after the money has been added, the presidential office said.

The move is part of a recent series of government measures aimed at countering the fallout for the island's export-dependent economy from Europe's deepening debt crisis.

The authorities announced earlier this week that they will intervene in the stock market and spend up to Tw$500 billion to buy stocks.

Taiwan's weighted index has dived 29 percent since the beginning of the year, and the fall is one of the chief complaints against President Ma Ying-jeou, who is seeking a second and final four-year term next month.

The government recently downgraded its 2011 economic growth forecast to 4.51 percent from 4.56 percent due to sluggish demand from its main markets in Europe and the United States.

Vietnam in Chinese flag faux pas

HANOI, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - Vietnam made an embarrassing gaffe this week when receiving China's Vice President Xi Jinping, considered the future number one in Beijing, by displaying Chinese flags bearing one star too many.

The trip was designed to improve strained relations that deteriorated following recent tensions over the disputed South China Sea.

But on Wednesday, Xi was greeted with flags picturing six stars, while the official emblem of the People's Republic of China has only five -- one large yellow star surrounded by four smaller ones.

A similar incident occurred in October, when the six-star flag was used by Vietnam's national television broadcaster while mentioning a visit by the Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to China.

The official media of both sides did not mention the latest incident, but exiled Vietnamese websites contained a number of comments.

"We must end the activities of those selling the Vietnamese fatherland, looking to make Vietnam the fifth star of China," lamented an anonymous comment on the dissident site "Dan Lam Bao" ("Citizen journalism").

"The Vietnamese Communist Party wants to become a second-class Chinese citizen. This is a damned flag for the Vietnamese people," said another.

The communist neighbours have had a long-standing dispute relating to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly island groups, which are in oil-rich waters straddling vital commercial shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

Rare anti-Chinese demonstrations were held this summer in Vietnam, which the authorities allowed to take place before clamping down.
The two countries fought a brief border war in 1979 before normalising relations in 1991.


Finland detains two Ukrainians in Patriot missile probe

HELSINKI, December 22, 2011 (AFP) - Finnish authorities have detained two Ukrainians over 69 surface-to-air Patriot missiles found on board a ship that docked in Finland en route to China, customs officials said Thursday.

"The ship's captain and the first mate have been detained," the head of the Finnish customs anti-crime unit, Petri Lounatmaa, told AFP.
Finnish customs are investigating the case as one of illegal export of defence material.

The missiles, produced by US firm Raytheon, were discovered following a customs search on the British-registered Thor Liberty, owned by Danish firm Thorco, at the Finnish port of Kotka about 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Helsinki.

It is not known where the missiles came from, but Finnish police and customs investigators were working on finding leads in Germany, where the ship was loaded before heading to Finland.

Lounatmaa declined to provide further information on discussions with German officials.

"We have received intelligence information, but we first need official confirmation," he explained.

According to regional German television NDR citing a customs source, the cargo is a legal shipment destined for South Korea.

Finnish police said Wednesday the ship's destination was the Chinese port of Shanghai.

Lounatmaa said the Thor Liberty's first officers and crew of about 30 were all Ukrainians, and that interrogations were under way.

He said investigators would be looking more closely into the intended destination of the vessel and its cargo, which also included propellant charges for the missiles, and 150 tons of explosives.

Port officials have relocated the vessel to a separate berth at the Kotka port.

Finnish customs have confiscated the missiles, and "the Finnish military are taking care of their transportation and storage," Lounatmaa said.

Finnish law requires permission from defence officials to move such material across the country's borders.

Taiwan billionaire to donate almost all to charity

TAIPEI, December 22, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan business tycoon Samuel Yin, whose assets are reportedly worth more than $3 billion, has pledged to donate 95 percent of his wealth to charity after he dies, local media said Thursday.

The 60-year-old, who is one of the island's richest men, announced the pledge -- the biggest ever of its kind in Taiwan -- in an interview with Business Today, a Taipei-based Chinese-language weekly.

"I've mentioned this to my family, and they've all agreed with me," he told the magazine.

Yin heads the sprawling Ruentex conglomerate, whose business interests include textiles, property, insurance, hypermarkets and education.

He has not publicly disclosed the value of his assets, but the magazine put it at an estimated Tw$95 billion ($3.2 billion).

The details of his pledge are yet to be finalised, but he said the money could also be used to finance the establishment of an award modelled on the much coveted Nobel Prize.

Yin was not immediately reachable for comment.

Japan cuts growth outlook as yen, disasters weigh

TOKYO, December 22, 2011 (AFP) - Japan on Thursday cut its economic growth forecast for the year to March 2012 and the following 12 months, citing the impact of a soaring yen, natural disasters and the eurozone debt crisis.

Tokyo said it expects Asia's second-largest economy to grow a real 2.2 percent in fiscal 2012, downgrading its previous forecast, released in August, for expansion of between 2.7 percent and 2.9 percent.

Asia's number two economy will contract 0.1 percent in the year to March, the government said, a turnaround from the 0.5 percent expansion tipped in August.

It added that "economic activities were seriously damaged" by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that -- as well as killing thousands of people -- smashed supply lines and shuttered factories.

Tokyo said activity picked up after the supply chain was rebuilt, "but after summer, the recovery has slowed due to a quickly rising yen and the global economic slowdown brought about by the European sovereign debt crisis."

Japanese firms, especially exporters, have been hit hard by the strong yen, which is sitting near post-war record highs against the dollar due to its safe-have status at times of global economic uncertainty.

Growth prospects were dealt a further blow as the floods in Thailand either damaged or led to the closure of several factories owned by big Japanese firms, who were only just recovering from the March 11 disasters.

Government officials said they expect consumer prices to remain stable, projecting them to rise 0.1 percent in 2012, adding to the woes of companies that have long grappled with the damaging effects of deflation.

The reading represents a faint hope and a reversal from a 0.2 percent fall in the consumer price index expected during fiscal 2011.

Industrial output will grow 6.1 percent, the report said, as domestic demand ramps up and a full recovery gets under way, a marked reversal of fortunes after a 1.9 percent fall in factory production to March 2012.

The government also said the jobless rate will gradually fall from 5.0 percent in fiscal 2010 to 4.5 percent in fiscal 2011 and 4.3 percent in the next 12 months.

Thursday's outlook comes a day after the Bank of Japan said the economic recovery "has paused" because of the slowing global economy and strong yen, while data revealed a growing trade deficit for the export-dependent nation.

"The pick-up in Japan's economic activity has paused, mainly due to the effects of a slowdown in overseas economies and of the appreciation of the yen," the central bank said after a two-day policy meeting.

It warned the European financial crisis was posing a serious risk to the global outlook.

"The sovereign debt problem in Europe could result in weaker growth not only in the European economy but also in the global economy, particularly through its effects on global financial markets," it said.

Underlining the difficulties facing Japan's export sector, figures Wednesday showed a trade deficit for a second straight month in November, with shipments to the crucial European market hit as the region struggles with a debt crisis.

Malaysian threatened over 'same sex union'

KUALA LUMPUR, December 22, 2011 (AFP) - A hardline conservative Malaysian Muslim on Thursday threatened to assault a gay fellow countryman who has apparently entered into a civil partnership in Ireland.

Traditionalists in Muslim-majority Malaysia have been outraged by images in a local newspaper purportedly showing the civil partnership ceremony in Dublin between Ariff Alfian Rosli and an Irish man.

They have condemned Ariff's actions as immoral and burned the pictures, which show him in traditional Malay attire with headgear embroidered with gold thread, while his apparent partner wears a formal Western suit.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, where sex between consenting adult men is a criminal offence punishable by whipping and imprisonment for up to 20 years.

Norizan Ali, chairman of the Kepong Islamic Youth Organisation, told AFP that he had lodged a complaint against Ariff with police because his action had tainted the image of Islam, the Malay race and the country.

"He is a traitor to the religion, race and nation," he said, adding that his group had burned the pictures of the ceremony.

"We oppose this gay behaviour. Ariff has committed a sin. He should return to Malaysia and seek forgiveness from his parents and Allah.

"If I meet him in Malaysia I will punch him."

Ariff, 28, told the Irish Times that he had moved to Dublin eight years ago to study medicine. He declined to confirm whether he had entered a civil partnership, but said he feared for his safety if he returned to Malaysia.

"Returning home under the current situation is untenable," the paper quoted him as saying Thursday.

Homosexuality is a taboo subject in Malaysia, where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accuses the authorities of trying to destroy him politically by prosecuting him on sodomy charges.

Norizan said homosexual and lesbian activities were becoming widespread in Malaysia and urged the authorities to crack down on them.

"We must eradicate this strange behaviour. If not it will destroy family ties and our country," he said.

Malaysia's acting law minister Nazri Aziz said Malaysia would not legalise same-sex marriages. "The similar gender marriage will not happen in our country. Full stop!" he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

Last November two Malaysian states said they were considering passing laws that could condemn gay Muslims and gay rights supporters to prison.

As well as criminal law, Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people, are subject Islamic shariah law for civil matters.