Singapore's 2011 growth lower than forecast: PM

Singapore's 2011 growth lower than forecast: PM

SINGAPORE, December 31, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore's full-year growth for 2011 fell short of previous estimates amid persistent European debt worries and an "uncertain" economic climate, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said Saturday.

The city-state recorded 4.8 percent growth in 2011 -- slightly off previous forecasts of five percent -- Lee said in his New Year's message emailed to the media Saturday.

"The external environment is uncertain. Debt problems in Europe are far from solved. Next year looks like being difficult for the global economy. As a small, open country, Singapore will inevitably be affected," he added.

The 4.8 percent growth is a huge slowdown from the all-time high of 14.5 percent seen in 2010 when the economy was coming off a 0.8 contraction the previous year.

In his speech, Lee maintained previous forecasts of a 1.0-3.0 percent growth next year.

Singapore's total GDP was valued at Sg$303.7 billion ($234.2 billion) in 2010, statistics from the government showed.

Despite Singapore's growth falling just short of the target, Lee urged Singaporeans not to be discouraged.

"Overall, we have every reason to be confident and optimistic. We pulled together as one nation to overcome the 2008 Global Financial Crisis," he said.

Singapore had been the first Asian nation to go into a recession during the 2008 crisis but was able to quickly recover from it, and posted record growth last year.

But Lee warned in October that Singapore must get used to slower economic growth in the next decade as it faced numerous challenges including tougher global competition and a tightening of its foreign worker inflow.

"Our growth is likely to slow down. Our economy is more developed, it can't expand in the same... way it used to -- seven, eight percent a year effortlessly year after year," Lee said then.

"We have made five and a half percent growth (a year on average) over the last decade. Over the next 10 years, we've set a target of three to five percent.

"But I would say if we can make three-plus percent (growth) consistently over the next 10 years, we've had a good decade."

Singapore's trade-driven economy is regarded as a bellwether for Asia's exporters, which depend heavily on electronics and other manufactured shipments to North America and Europe for growth.

In his New Year speech, Lee said 2011 had been a "significant year for Singapore" after the city-state underwent its general and presidential elections this year.

The ruling People's Action Party -- where Lee is secretary general -- suffered its lowest approval ratings at the general elections, and Tony Tan barely won the presidential elections as he was perceived as the government's proxy candidate.

"Having made a significant political transition, we are all now adjusting to new norms in a changed environment," Lee stated.

Iran ex-president's website shut down: report

TEHRAN, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - A website belonging to Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has criticised the current regime, has been shut down, his brother told the ISNA news agency on Friday.

"Yesterday (Thursday) evening, the company that provides the services made contact to tell us that they had been ordered to stop providing us the service," Mohammed Hashemi was quoted as saying.

"Fifteen minutes later, the site was no longer accessible," he added.

"We are going to see on Saturday who gave that order."

He explained that Iran's internet surveillance commission sent an email several days ago requesting that some of the content posted on the site be taken down, specifically speeches made by Rafsanjani during prayers.

Hashemi said the request was denied.

In 2009, following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election, Rafsanjani delivered a speech after Friday prayers in Tehran that was widely criticised by conservatives.

As the country faced sweeping anti-regime protests, Rafsanjani called for the release of those who had been detained during the unrest and urged greater press freedom to help restore calm.

Following those comments, the ex-president was banned from making speeches at Friday prayers.

An influential cleric who currently heads the country's top political arbitration body, Rafsanjani has faced harsh criticism from conservatives who demand that he condemn publicly opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

The cleric and former two-time president had indirectly supported Mousavi against Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election after he himself lost to the hardliner in 2005.

Rafsanjani in recent months has distanced himself from the opposition leaders and he condemned the last anti-government demonstrations staged by their supporters. But his stance has not satisfied the conservatives.

His daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, was last week summoned by a Tehran court to answer charges of making anti-regime propaganda.

She was was arrested and released after taking part in a number of protests which erupted after the 2009 election that saw Ahmadinejad returned to office amid opposition claims the vote was rigged.

A son of Rafsanjani's, Mehdi Hashemi, has also been targeted by court action in Iran. He left the country more than two years ago and now lives in London.

Verizon backs down on bill-pay fee after backlash

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Leading US wireless carrier Verizon Wireless backed down Friday on instituting a $2 charge for people paying their bills by credit card after a sweeping popular backlash over the plan.

The reversal just one day after announcing the fee came also after the industry regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, told The New York Times it would investigate the matter "on behalf of American consumers."

Verizon had said the new fee was "designed to address costs incurred by us" for customers who do not pay their bills via paper or electronic checks, or AutoPay, or online banking transfers.

Many customers appeared unsatisfied with those options, however, judging by an outpouring of complaints on Twitter and online petitions, and sweeping criticism in the media.

Finally late Friday the company, which holds roughly a 31 percent share of the cellphone service market, gave in to the backlash.

"Verizon Wireless has decided it will not institute the fee for online or telephone single payments that was announced earlier this week," the company said in a statement.

"The company made the decision in response to customer feedback about the plan, which was designed to improve the efficiency of those transactions."

Chief executive Dan Mead said the company decided that it would just encourage customers to pay by other means "eliminating the need to institute the fee at this time."

The move came as businesses increasingly battle the fees, often two percent, that banks and other issuers charge on consumer purchases made with their credit and debit cards.

Verizon customers were also angered because the company, like its competitors, adds a list of various extra "mandatory" service fees to its bills each month.

Moreover, the company's high-speed 4G LTE data service crashed twice this month, leaving smartphone users without Internet access for several hours.

The controversy was widely compared to the wave of complaints that followed Bank of America's announcement of a $5 monthly fee for US debit card users.

The bank instituted the charge to compensate for lost income after the government issued new regulations to limit debit card interchange fees charged to merchants.

The backlash eventually led the bank to scrap plans for the new fee.

Anonymous releases more Stratfor data

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Online "hacktivist" group Anonymous has released a trove of email addresses and credit card numbers stolen from the website of intelligence analysis firm Stratfor and promised further attacks.

In a statement on Pastebin.com late Thursday, members of Anonymous calling themselves "AntiSec" posted links to what the group said were 75,000 names, addresses, credit card numbers and passwords for Stratfor customers.

The group also posted links to what it said were 860,000 user names, email addresses and passwords for people who have registered on Stratfor's website, which remained offline on Friday nearly a week after coming under attack.

Anonymous said 50,000 of the email addresses ended in .mil and .gov used by the US government.

"We call upon all allied battleships, all armies from darkness, to use and abuse these password lists and credit card information to wreak unholy havok (sic) upon the systems and personal email accounts of these rich and powerful oppressors," Anonymous said.

Anonymous also warned in the statement on Pastebin that it will be "attacking multiple law enforcement targets from coast to coast" on New Year's Eve.

Stratfor, in a statement on its Facebook page, said it "regrets the latest disclosure of information obtained illegally from the company's data systems."

"We want to assure our customers and friends this was not a new cyber attack but was instead a release of information obtained during the previous security breach," it said.

"The latest disclosure included credit card information of paid subscribers and many email addresses of those who receive Stratfor's free services," the company said.

Anonymous earlier this week published what it said was Stratfor's client list, which included members of the US armed services, law enforcement agencies, top security contractors and major technology firms.

Anonymous also posted images claiming to show receipts from donations made by the hackers to various charities using stolen credit card data.

Anonymous has said it was able to obtain the information in part because Stratfor did not encrypt it, which could prove a major source of embarrassment to the global intelligence firm.

Stratfor chief executive George Friedman has said the Austin, Texas-based company will not relaunch its website "until a thorough review and adjustment by outside experts can be completed."

With the website down, Stratfor has been communicating using its Facebook page and sending its political and security analysis products to members by email.

Stratfor has also offered to provide members with one free year of identify theft protection services.

Anonymous has been involved in scores of hacking exploits including retaliatory attacks last year on companies perceived to be enemies of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Anonymous has said the latest attacks are in retaliation for the prosecution of Bradley Manning, the US Army private accused of leaking more than 700,000 US documents to WikiLeaks in one of the most serious intelligence breaches in US history.

Chinese man critical with bird flu - Lead

BEIJING, December 31, 2011 (AFP) - A man is in critical condition after testing positive for the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, state media said Saturday.

The city borders Hong Kong, which has already culled thousands of chickens and ordered a suspension of live poultry imports from China after three birds tested positive with the strain mid-December.

The man, a bus driver surnamed Chen, was hospitalised with a fever earlier this month and tested positive for the H5N1 avian influenza virus in Shenzhen, the provincial health department said, according to Xinhua news agency.

The report said the 39-year-old was taken to hospital on December 21, but the Hong Kong health department said in a statement he developed symptoms that day and was hospitalised on December 25 because of "severe pneumonia."

He remains in a critical condition and is receiving emergency treatment. Authorities say the man had apparently had no direct contact with poultry in the month before he was taken ill nor had he left the city.

"We will heighten our vigilance and continue to maintain stringent port health measures in connection with this development," a spokesman for the Hong Kong health department said.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have been working closely together since December 21 after live poultry supplies were suspended to the glitzy financial hub following the discovery of infected birds.

Health authorities in China vowed to stay in "close contact and work together" with Hong Kong and "jointly step up measures in controlling the epidemic", the report said.

China is considered one of the nations most at risk of bird flu epidemics because it has the world's biggest poultry population and many chickens in rural areas are kept close to humans.

In the last reported fatal case in China, a young pregnant woman died of bird flu in June last year in the central province of Hubei.

Her death brought to 26 the number of people who have died in China since the virus re-emerged in 2003, out of 39 reported human cases, based on previous World Health Organization figures.

Authorities in Hong Kong have raised the bird flu alert level to "serious" since they discovered infected chickens, resulting in major disruptions to poultry supplies over the busy Christmas period.

Two schools were ordered to close after dead birds infected with the virus were found on their premises.

Hong Kong was the site of the world's first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997, when six people died. Millions of birds were then culled.

The virus, which does not pass easily from human to human, has killed more than 330 people around the world, with Indonesia the worst-hit country. Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds.

In people it can cause fever, coughing, a sore throat, pneumonia, respiratory disease and, in about 60 percent of cases, death.

Scientists fear H5N1 will mutate into a form readily transmissible between humans, with the potential to cause millions of deaths.

Hong Kong is particularly nervous about infectious diseases after an outbreak of deadly respiratory disease SARS in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and a further 500 worldwide.

A 59-year-old woman tested positive for bird flu in 2010 in Hong Kong's first human case of the illness since 2003.


Congo bans 69 Chinese fishing boats

BRAZZAVILLE, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - The Republic of Congo has banned 69 Chinese fishing boats from its waters for illicit activities, Fisheries Minister Dieudonne Kiessiekiaoua said Friday.

"These boats are suspended until further notice from industrial fishing in Congolese territorial waters, because of a failure to respect the laws and regulations in force," Kiessiekiaoua told AFP.

The banned boats, which belong to three Chinese companies named as Lulu, Rong Chang and Huayi Jinri, were fishing in a prohibited zone up to six nautical miles offshore, which is set aside for reproduction and renewal of fish stocks.

In August, Kiessiekiaoua said that Congo had acquired a satellite surveillance system to watch over boats and better control its waters. The central African country also recently banned fishing with explosives and with fine-meshed nets.

Berlin 'concerned' at China's crackdown on dissidents

BERLIN, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Germany is "deeply concerned" at long jail sentences handed down to two Chinese activists and the way the trial of a third was conducted, a government spokesman said Friday.

"The government is deeply concerned about the Chinese justice system's proceedings against dissidents," Georg Streiter told a regular news conference.

"The chancellor calls on the Chinese government to release all persons held in custody for peacefully exercising their constitutional right to free expression," he added.

The judgements against veteran activist Chen Xi on Monday and Chen Wei last Friday came in the context of proceedings against China's human rights movement, he said, also referring to the case of rights activist Ni Yulan.

Amid a spreading crackdown on dissent, a Beijing court failed to reach a verdict Thursday after the trial of Ni and her husband, who have long helped victims of land grabs.

Chen Xi, who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protest movement, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for subversion. Chen Wei was jailed for nine years on the same charge.

Finland to widen missile shipment probe: customs

HELSINKI, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Finland wants to widen a probe into the illegal transit of 69 Patriot missiles through its territory aboard a regular merchant vessel, Finnish customs said Friday.

Two Ukrainians -- the ship's captain and the first mate -- remained in Finland and were subject to a travel ban amid the ongoing investigation.

"Next week... we will want to hear more suspects or persons of interest in the case. It is possible there may be others of interest," the head of the Finnish customs anti-crime unit, Petri Lounatmaa, told AFP.

The surface-to-air missiles, produced by US firm Raytheon, were discovered last week on the British-registered Thor Liberty docked in the southeastern Finnish port of Kotka and bound for the Chinese port city of Shanghai, according to Finnish police.

Finnish customs are investigating the case as one of illegal export of defence material.

Lounatmaa said customs and police investigators had "been in contact with several countries" and that the information gathered would help them "focus ... investigations in the right direction".

He declined to provide any details on the nature of the information received, noting only that some of it had come in the form of intelligence briefs.

More official information would be needed as evidence if the case goes to criminal proceedings, he said.

Last week, a German defence ministry spokesman said the missiles came from the German military and were destined for South Korea, not China.

He said it was a "legal sale on the basis of an accord between two states at the government level" and that export authorisations were in order.

However a senior Finnish defense ministry official said Finland had not received any transit license application for the missiles from Germany.

On Monday, Finnish transport safety officials cleared the Thor Liberty to leave Finland, after the missiles and most of the cargo of 150 tons of explosives had been unloaded from the vessel.

However the vessel remained grounded by the travel ban on its first officers.

Chinese firms bag India copper mining contracts

MUMBAI, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Three Chinese firms have bagged contracts worth nearly $105 million to help India's only copper miner Hindustan Copper Ltd meet a target of boosting its output four-fold, the company said on Friday.

Wenzhou Construction Group of China and India's Maheshwari Mining won an engineering and construction contract worth $18.3 million to develop mines in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.

Two other Chinese mining firms, Laiwu Steel Group Mine Construction Ltd and Sinosteel Engineering Design and Research Institute, won a $39 million project at HCL's Surda mines in eastern Jharkhand state.

Wenzhou and Maheshwari Mining have also got a $48 million contract to develop Chapri-Sideshwar, another mine in Jharkhand state.

Shakeel Ahmed, chairman and managing director of state-run Hindustan Copper, told AFP that the contracts were awarded in early November.

"We saw global competitive bidding and contracts were awarded through a transparent two-stage bidding. They (Chinese firms) bring value of project execution," he added.

Shares in the Kolkata-based firm jumped 15.96 percent to reach a high of 188.5 rupees intraday at the Bombay Stock Exchange, following initial media reports of the news. They closed at 186.25, up 14.5 percent.

Ahmed said the Chinese and Indian firms that won bids would be responsible for engineering, procurement and construction activity.

The contracts are expected to help boost production at Hindustan Copper four-fold from 3.4 million tonnes to 12.4 million tonnes over the next five years, he added.

Work will begin in earnest in the coming months, said Ahmed.

Ahmed has previously said that boosting mining capacity would be a key focus for the company in 2012 to improve sustainability of profits.

Relations between China and India have often been fraught, principally over disputed border territory in the far east and northwest of India and the presence of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on Indian soil.

Despite growing bilateral trade ties, both countries remain suspicious of each other as they increasingly compete for resources and influence overseas.

In May 2009, India restricted imports of Chinese telecom equipment because of fears that spyware might be embedded in it.

Chinese firms are already building steel plants in India but this is their first move in helping to develop copper mines, the Economic Times business daily said on Friday.

Alleged Chinese smuggling kingpin confesses: Xinhua

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Alleged Chinese smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing, who Canada deported after a 12-year legal battle, has "confessed" and is being handed over to prosecutors, state-run media said on Friday.

Lai, who was extradited in July after China promised he would not be executed, was handed over for prosecution in the southeastern city of Xiamen after investigation of his case closed, the Xinhua news agency said.

"Lai and other members of the smuggling gang confessed to the smuggling and bribery crimes they have committed," Xinhua reported.

The local customs and anti-smuggling office said Lai was transferred for prosecution to the public procurator in Xiamen, in Fujian province.
"Xiamen people's procuratorate has accepted the case in accordance with the law," Xinhua said.

Lai is accused of running a Fujian smuggling ring that moved contraband estimated to be worth $6 billion-$10 billion, in what state media has said could prove the largest economic crime since the Communists' rise in 1949.

China Central Television broadcast video of Lai, wearing glasses and civilian clothes, signing a document while in handcuffs and flanked by uniformed police, who then loaded him into an armoured prison van.

Lai the fugitive had been at the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war that for years tested Sino-Canadian relations as Canada's courts and refugee board blocked his repatriation out of fear he could be executed or tortured in China.

Canada, which does not have capital punishment, bans the return of prisoners to countries where they might be put to death.

But China issued an unusual promise not to execute Lai -- believed to be 53-years-old -- if he is tried and found guilty.

China is believed to execute more convicts each year than all other nations that practice capital punishment combined.

Lai will now probably face trial in China and a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.

China has executed people for a range of financial crimes but it recently removed some economic offences from that list in an overhaul of the death penalty, including some types of smuggling and tax fraud.

The proceedings are sensitive for China, which has vowed to rein in rampant corruption.

China court accepts lawsuit against ConocoPhillips

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - A Chinese court has agreed to hear a 490-million-yuan ($78-million) lawsuit brought against US firm ConocoPhillips by a group of fishermen following an oil spill, state media said Friday.

The early June leak released more than 3,000 barrels of oil and oil-based mud -- used as a lubricant in drilling -- off China's northeastern coast, drawing widespread public criticism and warnings from Chinese authorities.

Lawyers for 107 fishermen filed a lawsuit with the Tianjin Maritime Court in north China earlier this month, claiming the oil leak from a field operated by ConocoPhillips killed many of their clams and sea cucumbers, a form of seafood.

The official Xinhua news agency said Friday the court had accepted the case of the fishermen, who are seeking 490 million yuan in damages.

Calls to the court, ConocoPhillips and to the fishermen's lawyer went unanswered.

The spill, which happened near platforms jointly owned by Conoco and Chinese state-owned giant CNOOC, polluted over 6,200 square-kilometres of water in Bohai Bay, the report said -- more than eight times the size of Singapore.

A separate lawsuit connected to the spill has been filed in the eastern city of Qingdao by more than 200 fishermen seeking 30 million yuan in compensation, but it is unclear whether the court there has accepted the case.

The State Oceanic Administration -- the government agency that supervises and manages China's seas -- has also said it will sue ConocoPhillips over the leak.

Environmental groups and local fishermen have accused ConocoPhillips and CNOOC of initially covering up the spill, saying it was discovered in June but only made public nearly a month later.

Both firms deny the allegations. ConocoPhillips says it cooperated with authorities as soon as the accident occurred.

New contraceptive rule in China sparks outrage

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - A new regulation that requires women buying emergency contraceptives in at least one Chinese city to register their real names and ID card numbers has triggered an outcry on the Internet.

The food and drug watchdog in Fuzhou city, capital of the southeastern province of Fujian, announced this week that pharmacies must register their customers' details in a bid to step up control of medicine for pregnant women.

"This amounts to asking Chinese people to register before they make love," one netizen named Ding Zhengyu said on Sina's popular Twitter-like weibo on Friday.

"To make love you now need to get the agreement from relevant departments and only then can you make love, without approval you have no right to make love."

Other online posts said the rule would backfire and result in people refusing to buy contraceptives and instead risk unwanted pregnancies.

The Fuzhou watchdog said it had also issued the new requirement -- made public Monday -- to increase understanding of how contraceptives work.

An official at the watchdog surnamed Zhang told AFP that "further regulations" would be coming out "soon."

He refused to comment on why authorities have mandated buyers of emergency contraceptives to register with pharmacies.

The new rule is also expected to be implemented in Xiamen -- Fujian's second-largest city -- according to media reports.

It comes after authorities in Shanghai, Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong have starting asking microblog (weibo) users to register under their real names, as they tighten their grip on the Internet.

"You have to register your real name on weibos, you have to register your real name for contraceptives, soon you'll have to register your name to buy bicycles," one netizen said Friday.

Taiwan mulls ban on foetus gender screening

TAIPEI, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan is considering banning doctors from performing gender screening of foetuses in a bid to curb sex-selective abortions, health authorities said Friday.

The bureau of health promotion said it was reviewing the issue after up to 3,000 female babies were presumed to have been aborted in Taiwan last year.

A government probe found that 10 out of every 11 babies delivered in a clinic in New Taipei City last year were boys, while nine out of 10 babies born in another hospital during the same period were also male.

Government officials suspected that doctors at the two medical institutions had carried out the abortions at the request of parents who had viewed ultrasound scans which allowed them to predict the sex of their baby.

Although such abortions are illegal, the practice is believed to be common on the island, as in China and some other Asian countries, due to traditional preferences for male children.

Last year, Taiwan's birth rate hit a record low to one of the world's lowest when the number of newborns dwindled to 166,886 from 191,310 in 2009, government data showed.

However, it rose for the first time in 11 years in the first half of 2011, partly after a string of incentives offered by the government.

Taiwan, Hong Kong sign new aviation deal

TAIPEI, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan and Hong Kong signed a new aviation agreement on Friday to add more flights between the two and boost trade and tourism, officials in Taipei said.

Under the new deal, the two will increase weekly passenger flights to 410 by March from 340, said Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration.

They also agreed to boost cargo shipment by nearly 80 percent to 3,000 tonnes a week by summer and allow up to 28 weekly charter flights to connect Hong Kong with several new destinations in Taiwan, it said.

The accord, which will take effect on January 1, is the first to be signed by official representatives rather than airline officials, reflecting warmer ties between Taiwan and the southern Chinese territory, Taipei said.

Taiwan in July upgraded the status of its de facto consulate in Hong Kong in a move hailed as a new milestone in ties and which observers said was made possible by the island's improving relationship with China.

Taiwan has ruled itself since it split from China in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island, by force if necessary.

However, tensions with the mainland have eased since Taiwan's China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008.

Verizon's 'convenience fee' sparks uproar in US

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Verizon users vented their anger online after the US company announced a new $2 "convenience fee" on certain one-time bill payments, in the latest popular backlash against alleged corporate greed.

Verizon announced the new fee on Thursday, saying it was "designed to address costs incurred by us for only those customers who choose to make single bill payments in alternate payment channels (online, mobile, telephone)."

The fee would not apply to customers using electronic checks or AutoPay, or those paying with mailed-in paper checks, gift or rebate cards, or through online banking transfers.

Many customers appeared unsatisfied with those options, however, judging by an outpouring of complaints on Twitter and online petitions one of which had  gathered some 400 signatures by late Thursday.

"Crazy world when you have to pay a fee to give a company money," the MSN Money news website wrote on Twitter.

"We in the country are already being price gouged by limited and substandard services from Verizon, yet have no viable alternatives," Laurinda Reinhart of North Carolina wrote on an online petition.

"Verizon doesn't seem to value its customers one bit. enough!!" she added.

The company's high-speed 4G LTE data service crashed twice this month, leaving smartphone users without Internet access for several hours.

The fee controversy was widely compared to the wave of complaints that followed Bank of America's announcement of a $5 monthly fee for US debit card users. The backlash eventually led the bank to scrap plans for the new fee.

This year has seen Americans express increasing frustration at alleged corporate greed and political corruption, most visibly in the Occupy Wall Street movement that spawned tent camps in several major cities.

Chinese firms bag India copper mining contracts

MUMBAI, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Shares in India's Hindustan Copper jumped on Friday after a report that three Chinese firms had bagged contracts worth nearly $105 million to boost its production.

Shares in the Kolkata-based firm jumped nearly 13 percent to reach a high of 183.4 rupees intraday at the Bombay Stock Exchange following the report in the Economic Times business daily.

Chinese firms are already building steel plants in India, but this is their first move in helping to develop copper mines, the daily added.
Officials at state-run Hindustan Copper were not immediately available for comment when contacted by AFP.

Shakeel Ahmed, chairman and managing director of Hindustan Copper, was quoted as telling the Economic Times: "The contracts were awarded through a transparent two-stage bidding."

The contracts are expected to help boost production at India's only copper mining firm four-fold to 12 million tonnes over the next five years, the report said.

Wenzhou Construction Group of China and India's Maheshwari Mining bagged an engineering and construction contract worth $18.3 million to develop mines in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.

Two other Chinese mining firms, Laiwu Steel Group and Sinosteel Engineering Design and Research Institute, won a $39 million project at HCL's Surda mines in eastern Jharkhand state.

Wenzhou and Maheshwari Mining have also got a $48 million contract to develop an underground mine, also in Jharkhand state.

Sino-Indian relations have often been fraught, principally over disputed border territory in the far east and northwest of India and the presence of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on Indian soil.

Despite growing bilateral trade ties, both countries remain suspicious of each other as they increasingly compete for resources and influence overseas.

In May 2009, India restricted imports of Chinese telecom equipment because of fears that spyware might be embedded in it.

N. Korea tourism to reopen after Kim death: agent

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - North Korea will reopen to tourists on January 10, less than a month after strongman Kim Jong-Il died, a tour organiser said Friday, in a sign of a return to normality in the isolated state.

Kim died on December 17 from a heart attack at the age of 69, prompting a 13-day mourning period in the communist country that culminated Thursday in a huge memorial service for the late leader.

"We have just been informed by our Korean partners that the DPRK (North Korea) will open to tourists from January 10th," Koryo Group, a Beijing-based travel agency that organises tours to the North, said in a statement.

North Korea closes to tourists during part of December and January every year, Simon Cockerell, Koryo's managing director, told AFP.
But when Kim's father Kim Il-Sung passed away in 1994, the country closed to tourists for 100 days, he said, which had prompted speculation the reclusive state would be sealed off for longer than the normal winter period this year.

At the time of the elder Kim's death, though, tourism to North Korea was a very small industry, whereas the sector is significantly bigger now, Cockerell said.

Around 3,000 Western tourists visited North Korea in 2010, he said, and many more Chinese travellers tour the country every year.

North Korea began accepting Western tourists in the late 1980s, after decades of only taking in visitors from Communist and non-aligned nations.

Koryo's first group of 20 tourists next year will arrive too soon to celebrate the late Kim Jong-Il's birthday on February 16, which has previously been marked with giant arrangements of red begonia, figure skating and synchronised swimming.

"This will be the first year that the North will celebrate Kim's birthday without him. Perhaps they'll tone down the synchronised swimming and do something more sombre," Cockerell said.

North Korea also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung on April 15.

"It's not clear what will happen, but there's no way that North Korea will let this big anniversary pass without mass events of some kind, dances in the city, and a citizens' parade and military parade, off limits to tourists."

Could Obama pay a price if Iraq spirals?

HONOLULU, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Fears that Iraq will spiral into instability and slip under Iran's sway may foreshadow an election year row over President Barack Obama's core political achievement: ending the war.

Obama, currently on vacation in Hawaii, built his political career on early opposition to the 2003 US invasion, capturing a public mood which helped propel him to the White House five years later.

So when he brought the last US soldiers home this month, he touted a promise kept in extricating the United States from what critics see as a grand folly.

But long-time war supporters have questioned whether rising sectarianism and instability bubbling up after the US exit could undercut Obama's hopes to use the withdrawal as proof of sound national security judgment.

"The question of the moment is not: 'Who lost Iraq? but rather, Is Iraq definitely lost?" wrote Frederick and Kimberly Kagan in the Weekly Standard.

"It certainly seems so."

Frederick Kagan was an architect of the surge strategy enacted by president George W. Bush which, if it did not provide the United States "victory" in Iraq, allowed US troops to leave without the stigma of defeat.

Obama argued that American sacrifices forged an Iraq that was "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

But recent violent attacks, signs of revived sectarianism, a fragile governing coalition and fears of growing authoritarianism on the part of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have challenged that view.

In a New York Times op-ed Thursday, leading members of the Iraqiya bloc accused Maliki of hounding Sunni opponents.

"The prize, for which so many American soldiers believed they were fighting, was a functioning democratic and nonsectarian state," they wrote.

"But Iraq is now moving in the opposite direction -- toward a sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war."

So if Iraq tips into the mire, will Obama's eventual Republican opponent in next November's election have reason to bash his commander-in-chief spurs?

Or will Americans credit their president with getting American troops out of the deepening maelstrom and out of harm's way?

Republican hawks imply Obama has squandered the legacy of the nearly 4,500 US troops who fell in the Iraq war.

"All of the progress that both Iraqis and Americans have made, at such painful and substantial cost, has now been put at greater risk," Republican Senator John McCain said in December.

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney attacked Obama in a recent interview with Fox News Sunday, saying that the withdrawal was "precipitous" and that up to 30,000 US troops should have been left behind.

Top Obama administration officials dismiss the idea that a residual US force would have increased US leverage in Iraqi politics.

And Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the view that troops equals influence was false.

"Even at the height of the surge, when we had more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq, the US was never able to force or convince the Iraqi politicians to do things that they didn't want to do," she said.

The Obama administration notes that it took months for Iraqi leaders to form a coalition after 2010 elections, so political dislocation is nothing new.

And they argue that attacks in Iraq -- like the blasts that killed more than 65 people last week -- were a common occurrence even when large numbers of US troops were there, so cannot be pinned on the US departure.

Even if Iraq does badly deteriorate, it is unclear whether Americans will blame for the legacy of a war that was so politically divisive.
And even hawks do not advocate sending US troops back into Iraq.

"The only real issue that people care about is the economy," said Ottaway.

"Americans have long since put the Iraq war behind them. Nobody wants to hear about it."

In a Zogby poll in September, 74 percent of Americans asked said the US withdrawal was a positive development, compared to 13 percent who disagreed, suggesting that for now at least, Obama is on solid political ground.

Duke University professor Peter Feaver, a veteran of the Clinton and George W. Bush National Security Councils, acknowledged there is no longer intense public debate on the Iraq war.

But he argued Obama could have exploited the low wattage of the issue to sell a continued US presence, had US lawyers thrashed out a deal to keep some forces in Iraq to promote stability and train local forces.

"He took the course that had the most political payoff for him ... but paradoxically, I would argue that it has the most risk," said Feaver.

He went on to warn that a swift Iraqi deterioration could haunt Obama in the election year or in any eventual second term.

US, Europe woes hit China manufacturing: HSBC

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - China's manufacturing activity continued to shrink in December, HSBC said Friday, as economic strife in the key European and US markets hobbled demand for the nation's goods.

The final HSBC purchasing managers' index (PMI) reached 48.7 in December, slightly better than the 47.7 in November but lower than preliminary PMI of 49 released earlier this month, as new orders dropped.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion while a reading below 50 suggests a contraction.

While the figures are a slight improvement, the data adds to mounting evidence export-driven China is slowing and will ratchet up pressure on Beijing to further loosen monetary policies to prevent a painful hard landing.

Manufacturing activity contracted in November for the first time in 33 months, while consumer prices rose at their slowest pace in more than a year and industrial output growth hit its lowest level since 2009.

"Weakening external demand is starting to bite," Qu Hongbin, HSBC chief economist, said in a statement.

"This, plus the ongoing property market corrections, adds to calls for more aggressive action on both fiscal and monetary fronts to stabilise growth and jobs, especially with prices easing rapidly.

"Hard landings should be avoided so long as easing measures filter through in the coming months."

Beijing is anxious to prevent a sharp slowdown in the economy but at the same time it wants to avoid reigniting inflation, which hit a more than three year high of 6.5 percent in July but has since slowed.

The government has also enacted a series of policies to cool the red-hot property market, and official data has shown that home prices in most major Chinese cities fell in November from the previous month.

In a bid to boost growth and counter turmoil in Europe and the United States, China cut the amount of money banks must hold in reserve for the first time in three years late last month.

S.Africa's iconic black glamour magazine Drum turns 60

JOHANNESBURG, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Yellowed cover pages of South Africa's iconic Drum magazine evoke a 1950s black fashion and jazz culture which perished when apartheid forces razed Sophiatown, a racially-mixed Johannesburg suburb.

This year Drum turned 60 and even today South Africans link the magazine to  Sophiatown, a restless and vibrant suburb which was home to blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese.

Between 1955 and 1960, residents were forcibly removed and relocated to townships outside Johannesburg because white blue-collar areas sprang up nearby, fuelling the perception that Sophiatown was too close to white suburbia.

It was flattened, repopulated with poor whites and renamed Triomf, which is Afrikaans for "Triumph".

"Sophiatown set the pace, giving urban African culture its pulse, rhythm, and style during the 1940s and 1950s," said cultural anthropologist David Coplan in his book "In Township Tonight".

"Even as government bulldozers were levelling its houses, Sophiatown generated a cultural flowering unequalled in the urban history of South Africa," Coplan said.

Sophiatown's snazzy gangsters drove around in chrome-laden US convertibles inspired by African American culture. The 70,000 locals proudly called their suburb "Little Harlem".

And, just like its role model New York, Sophiatown brimmed with jazz, with star performers such as legendary protest singer and Africa's most famous diva Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Dollar Brand and Hugh Masekela.

At the centre of this vibrant suburban life were Drum journalists who "produced the best investigative journalism, short fiction, satirical humour, social and political commentary, and musical criticism South Africa had ever seen," Coplan wrote.

German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg made a name with his cover page photos depicting the town's urban life, challenging racist views of Africans as simply farm or mine workers.

Reporter Henry Nxumalo was famous for his investigative pieces. Fondly called "Mr Drum", Nxumalo once enlisted as a farm worker to expose the brutality of white farmers. He was stabbed to death in 1957 while investigating abortions.

Nxumalo's life story was portrayed in a 2004 film, aptly called "Drum".

Journalist Peter Magubane described the atmosphere in the newsroom thus: "Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination ... It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land."

Over 50 years after the quarter was demolished and suburban houses built on its ruins, a small museum keeps Sophiatown's memory alive, with the help of some photographs from Drum.

-- Urban life that apartheid destroyed --

"Sophiatown was a vibrant place, there was life in Sophiatown! Everything was happening there," enthused Mbali Zwane, a young guide at the museum.

Renamed Sophiatown again, the suburb is more important for its symbolism than its reality.

The cosmopolitan suburb that defied apartheid laws on racial mixing presents a more romantic image of black South Africa than the dilapidated townships on the edge of town where people of colour had been relegated.

"There is a romanticisation of Sophiatown that has to do with nostalgia," said Noor Nieftagodien, a historian at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.

"That is understandable. The community represented a kind of urban life that apartheid destroyed."

In the same way memories of blacks, Indians, mixed race people living in harmony persists, though the population was actually overwhelmingly black.

But Sophiatown was no paradise, said Nieftagodien. Tenants were often exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Most of the people were poor and it was riddled with slums.

The magazine is inextricably linked with the suburb's idealised memory, he said. At the same time Drum writers did not live the same reality as Sophiatown residents.

"A lot of the journalists who wrote for Drum belonged to a particular elite, middle class. For them, Sophiatown was a glamourous world. It was their microcosm world."

Over the years the arbiter of 1950s elegance also changed. Drum gradually started running fewer and fewer stories and more pictures. It was bought by Naspers in 1984, at the time a staunchly pro-apartheid media house and these days a global media group.

Its star writers were jailed, killed, exiled, or fell to alcoholism.

Today the magazine is the black version of Naspers' local English and Afrikaans gossip titles You and Huisgenoot.

The English and Zulu language editions are nothing close to the glamour and exposes of old, and the 60th birthday edition harkens back to a spirit of Sophiatown which the magazine itself has lost.

Japan indicts Chinese skipper for illegal fishing

TOKYO, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Prosecutors have indicted the skipper of a Chinese fishing boat for illegally operating in Japanese waters, a local official said Friday.

The Nagasaki District Public Prosecutors Office has finalised its case against Zhong Jinyin, 39, the official said, following his December 20 arrest near islands off southwest Japan.

It was not clear when he would appear in court.

The arrest, the second in the area in less than two months, took place after a six-hour pursuit. Japanese officers found coral and tools on the boat.

Arrests by Japan of straying Chinese fishermen are increasingly common and usually pass off without much of a hitch, but can occasionally flare.

Japanese authorities last week arrested another Chinese fishing boat captain, who was later released after paying a fine of 300,000 yen ($3,900), Jiji Press and other local media reported.

The two Asian rival are still trying to heal diplomatic wounds from a year ago when Beijing reacted in fury over the arrest of one of its fishermen near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

During Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's visit to China this week, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to set up a high-level meeting on maritime affairs in an effort to reduce tensions.

Obama to discuss US recovery in hard-hit Ohio

HONOLULU, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama will highlight his plans to speed economic recovery Wednesday in the key state of Ohio -- the day after Republicans hold their first 2012 nominating contest.

Obama will visit the city of Cleveland, deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Hawaii, where Obama will wrap up his Christmas and New Year vacation early next week.

The president's trip will be seen as another chance to argue that his policies, rather than those pursued by his Republican foes, are most beneficial to the middle class.

Republican candidates face their first contest of the race to take on Obama for the White House in November 2012 on Tuesday, in the Iowa caucuses.

Ohio is seen as a political bellwether state because no Republican has won the White House without capturing the key midwestern industrial battleground, which Obama added to his winning column in 2008.

Kim Jong-Il souvenir sales surge on Chinese border

DANDONG, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il earlier this month has sparked a run on enamelled lapel pins bearing his image in the Chinese border city of Dandong, street vendors said Friday.

But the face of the isolated country's new leader, Kim's young son Jong-Un, is nowhere to be found on the vendors' tables, also laden with cheaply made souvenir fridge magnets, Buddhas, bracelets, cups and nail clippers.

"I don't know when we will get them. North Korea hasn't sent them yet," a peddler surnamed Wang told AFP, a day after the untested Jong-Un was formally declared the supreme leader of the impoverished country.

Another stall holder surnamed Ding said it was too early for Jong-Un badges to be on sale.

"In 20 years they will make them. He's too young now," the elderly woman told AFP, as she laid out her last Kim Jong-Il lapel pins in a small box.

Vendors braving freezing temperatures along the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea, said sales of badges bearing the likeness of Kim Jong-Il surged after his death on December 17 from a heart attack at the age of 69.

Ding said she sold 50 to 60 lapel pins every day during the 13-day mourning period, which ended Thursday with a massive memorial service for the late leader, compared with just two or three a day before his death.

A single badge costs between 10 yuan and 35 yuan ($1.60 to $5.50) depending on the buyer's bargaining skills -- or 50 yuan for a lapel pin bearing the image of Kim and his late father, North Korea's founding president Kim Il-Sung.

Souvenir North Korean won notes picturing the two Kims were selling for 20 yuan -- or 135 yuan for what vendors said were "real" notes.

"North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese and Europeans have been buying badges to remember the past," Wang said.

China auto rules could ward off new firms: analysts

BEIJING, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - China's decision to "withdraw support" for foreign investment in its auto sector is unlikely to see global firms leave the country but will make it harder for new carmakers to enter, analysts say.

The guidelines -- released by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top economic planner, late Thursday -- signal an end to incentives for foreigners and discourage fresh projects in China.

The move comes as sales in the world's biggest market slump and Beijing tries to shore up the economy by helping domestic companies and opening up other industries to foreigners such as environmental technology.

"The government is signalling that it is worried about overcapacity (in the auto industry) and that it will reserve any new capacity to local brands or new energy vehicles," said John Zeng, director of forecasting for research firm LMC Automotive.

"In previous years, a joint venture in China enjoyed tariff reductions on the import of new equipment, but now with the new policy there will be no such incentives, so investment costs will increase.

"New foreign brands could be restricted."

The new policy -- due to go into effect on January 30 -- will likely affect some of the world's biggest car firms, including General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen, all of which have long had operations in China, he said.

However, Zeng said: "This new policy is not a surprise. Previously the government announced that any new capacity should be for local brands, they are reclarifying what has already been said."

Jia Xinguang, managing director of the China Automobile Dealers Association, said authorities were now likely to block new projects in the sector -- such as factories -- planned by foreign firms.

The measure comes as China's auto sales slump amid a global and domestic slowdown.

China overtook the United States as the world's number one car market in 2009 and soared 32 percent last year to a record 18.06 million units.

But the sector has since lost steam after Beijing phased out sales incentives such as tax breaks for small-engine cars.

Sales slid 2.4 percent in November from a year earlier to around 1.66 million vehicles, marking the second straight monthly decline.

In a statement announcing the new guidelines, the NDRC and the commerce ministry said they were issued "because of the need for the healthy development of domestic auto manufacturing."

Jia told AFP the guidelines are "a signal to foreign investors that China has overcapacity (in the auto sector), and investment risk is bigger now.

"Manufacturing capacity is about 350 million units, but the rosiest sale estimate is for just 200 million units next year."

But he said other obstacles to foreign investors in the car industry had already been in place for years, such as requirements to build R&D centres.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, China attracted $103.77 billion in foreign direct investment in the first 11 months of 2011, up 13.15 percent from a year earlier.

Nikkei closes 2011 at lowest year-end level since 1982

TOKYO, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's headline Nikkei-225 index finished 2011 trade Friday at its lowest year-end level since 1982, despite rising on the day thanks to upbeat US data.

The Nikkei index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange finished at 8,455.35, down 17.34 percent, or 1,773.57 points, from the 2010 close of 10,228.92

In 1982, the index finished the year at 8,016.67.

Japanese investor to restore ancient Roman pyramid

ROME, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - A Japanese businessman has agreed to invest around one million euros ($1.3 million) to restore a 2,000-year-old Roman pyramid in the Italian capital, La Repubblica daily reported on Thursday.

Yuzo Yagi, a fashion business owner from Osaka, is due to sign the agreement later this month and work on the pyramid, which was built in 18-12 BC as a tomb for a wealthy Roman, Gaius Cestius, is set to start in April, officials said.

"His dream is to leave a mark in our country," Rita Paris, who manages the monument on behalf of the state, was quoted as saying.
"Last year, he visited the pyramid and was struck by how remarkable it was."

Yagi's only request is for a plaque with his name on it near the monument.

The project will include the use of probes to determine whether there are any secret chambers built into the 36-metre (118-foot) high pyramid after recent ultrasonic testing found some gaps in the structure.

Like the Colosseum, which is also preparing for a major restoration project next year, the pyramid is at the centre of a busy road junction.

The pyramid is covered in Carrara marble and was built following Rome's conquest of Egypt in 31 BC, which started off a trend for ancient Egypt.

The 23-square-metre frescoed burial chamber at the heart of the pyramid was sealed when it was built but was raided in the Middle Ages.

Google top US Web destination in 2011: Nielsen

WASHINGTON, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - Google was the most-visited Web destination in the United States in 2011, followed by Facebook and Yahoo!, industry tracker Nielsen said Thursday.

Google received an average of 153.4 million unique US visitors a month from home and work computers, according to Nielsen.
Facebook notched up 137.6 million unique US visitors a month and Yahoo! 130.1 million.

Microsoft's MSN, WindowsLive and Bing were next with 115.9 million unique US visitors a month, followed by YouTube with 106.7 million.

Facebook, which boasts more than 800 million members worldwide, was the runaway leader in the category of social networks and blogs, Nielsen said.

The social networking website's 137.6 million unique monthly visitors were more than triple the 45.7 million a month for Blogger and nearly six times the 23.6 million a month for Twitter, Nielsen said.

Struggling social network Myspace attracted an average of 17.9 million unique US visitors a month while Google's new social network, Google+, got 8.2 million a month, according to Nielsen.

RIM share of US smartphone market slips

WASHINGTON, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - BlackBerry maker Research In Motion's share of the US smartphone market declined during the three months ending in November, while Apple and Google's Android platform both made gains, industry tracker comScore said Thursday.

The Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM saw its share of US smartphone subscribers fall to 16.6 percent at the end of November from 19.7 percent at the end of August, according to comScore.

Android was the top smartphone platform with a 46.9 percent share of the US market at the end of November, up from 43.8 percent.
Apple's market share also rose during the period -- by 1.4 percentage points to 28.7 percent.

Microsoft, meanwhile, saw its share of the smartphone market fall to 5.2 percent from 5.7 percent.

The industry tracker said 234 million Americans were using mobile devices and 91.4 million were using smartphones.

Samsung remained the top handset manufacturer in the United States with 25.6 percent of US mobile subscribers at the end of November,up from 25.3 percent at the end of August.

LG was next with 20.5 percent, down from 21.0 percent, followed by Motorola with 13.7 percent, down from 14.0 percent.

Apple's share of US mobile subscribers rose to 11.2 percent from 9.8 percent while RIM saw its market share drop to 6.5 percent from 7.1 percent.

RIM has been struggling in recent months and has been the subject of persistent takeover speculation.

Doomed US teen shares life after death experiences

CHICAGO, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - A week before Ben Breedlove died of a heart attack, the Texas teenager posted a remarkable video describing the peace and bright lights he'd found the other times his heart stopped.

Breedlove, 18, tells his story with simple note cards and the occasional smile, sitting close to the camera and stepping back just once to show the scar from when a pacemaker was implanted to help his troubled heart.

It is a remarkably hopeful video, though Breedlove also describes the fear he lived with after being born with a serious heart condition and disappointment that he could not play sports and "be the same as everyone else."

"The first time I cheated death was when I was 4," one of the cards said.

Breedlove had a seizure and as nurses rushed him down a hospital hallway, he told his mother of the bright light overhead.

She said she couldn't see anything, but he felt his fear and worries washed away and couldn't help smiling.

"I can't even describe the peace, how peaceful it was," he wrote. "I will NEVER forget that feeling or that day."

Breedlove nearly died again a few months ago when his heart stopped during a routine surgery to remove his tonsils.

"It was a miracle that they brought me back," he wrote. "I was scared to die but am SO glad I didn't."

Breedlove's heart stopped again on December 6. He was at his Austin high school and sat down on a bench after feeling like he was going to faint.

He passed out and when he woke up, he couldn't talk or move. He could only watch and listen as paramedics put shock pads on his chest.

He heard them say that his heart had stopped and that he had no pulse, which he explains by the fact that "when people's bodies 'die' the brain still works for a short time."

"I really thought to myself, this is it, I'm dying," he wrote.

"The next thing that happened I'm not sure if it was a dream or vision. But while I was still unconscious I was in this white room. No walls, it just went on and on..."

He found himself standing with his favorite rapper, Kid Cudi, and they were both dressed in really nice suits.

"Why he was the only one there with me, I'm still trying to figure out," Breedlove wrote.

"I had that same feeling, I couldn't stop smiling. I then looked at myself in the mirror and I was proud of MYSELF. Of my entire life, everything I have done. IT WAS THE BEST feeling."

Kid Cudi put his hand on the shoulder and then Breedlove's favorite song came on, the part where Cudi raps "when will this fantasy end... when will the heaven begin?"

Cudi told him "Go now" and Breedlove woke up.

After viewing the video, the rapper said he broke down in tears watching it.

"This has really touched my heart in a way I cant describe, this is why I do what I do. Why I write my life, and why I love you all so much," Kid Cudi wrote on his blog.

"I know Ben is at Peace, and I hope he gets a chance to sit and talk with my Dad."

Breedlove ended his video with four final cards: "I didn't want to leave that place. I wish I NEVER woke up. Do you believe in angels or God? I Do."

Breedlove died on Christmas and his family said in his death notice that it was a gift from God.

"We know the Lord used the amazing life of our precious son to reach a weary world on Christmas night, just as He did over 2000 years ago with his own Son," they wrote, and urged people to find the video that Breedlove posted on YouTube on December 18.

The video, which can been seen at http://youtu.be/tmlTHfVaU9o and http://youtu.be/a4LSEXsvRAI, soon went viral.

New Year despair for Japan's nuclear refugees - Focus

TOKYO, December 30, 2011 (AFP) - As most of Japan prepares to ring in the New Year at the end of a traumatic 2011, refugees from the country's nuclear crisis relocated far from home say they have nothing to celebrate.

All over the country families will gather for a midnight trip to a shrine, many donning traditional kimono for the centrepiece of several days of celebration during one of Japan's most important festivals.

But for the many tens of thousands of people forced to flee when reactors at Fukushima Daiichi began spewing radiation, festivities are a long way from their thoughts.

Many of the 1,000 or so refugees holed-up in a 36-storey Tokyo tower block say their mood will be altogether downbeat, after a devastating year which saw their hometowns engulfed by the worst nuclear crisis in a generation.

"I can't say a Happy New Year this year as I don't feel happiness," said Yuji Takahashi, who has been in the government-owned block since April.

Takahashi was one of tens of thousands of people ordered to leave their homes after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake of March 11 sent a huge tsunami crashing into Fukushima Daiichi.

The atomic plant's cooling systems were knocked out and reactors went into dangerous meltdown releasing radioactive particles into the air, sea and food chain.

Elsewhere along the coast 20,000 people were killed and many made homeless as the waves crushed whole towns.

In happier times Takahashi's extended family would gather at his home in Tomioka, six kilometres (four miles) from the nuclear plant to drink sake and eat special "osechi" dishes made for New Year from home-grown vegetables.

"It was so cheerful and enjoyable, but I can't do that this year," the 68-year-old former schoolteacher told AFP.

"My life has completely changed. I don't know how long I will have to live like this.

 "That is the most stressful thing. I would almost rather that the government said we have to abandon hope of ever going back home. I'm trying to be prepared for the worst."

Japan has said decommissioning the tsunami-wrecked reactors at Fukushima could take as long as 40 years, and some areas around the plant could be uninhabitable for decades.

Shigeko Sasaki, another nuclear refugee whose house in Namie was swept away by the tsunami is angry at the government for its insensitivity in housing her in a bayside apartment building.

"I feared water the most," Sasaki said. "Why did (the government) put people like me into somewhere so close to the sea? At first, I thought I couldn't live here."

After nearly ten months, 61-year-old Sasaki says she has finally grown accustomed to looking at the sea that so cruelly shattered her life, but has not stopped worrying about the future.

"We have to find a place to settle down, and everybody who I'm now getting along with here will disperse again," Sasaki said, referring to the government's pledge to close shelters as early as April 2013.

In mid-December, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the country finally had control of leaking reactors at Fukushima, in what authorities say is a vital step on the long road to recovery.

The government now plans to reclassify a 20-kilometre no-go zone around the plant in April into three categories based on levels of radiation.

But Kozo Misawa, 69, whose house and restaurant are in an area that may be reclassified as "habitable" says it doesn't matter what official pronouncements are made because the communities who lived there have been destroyed.

"The government can easily say, 'It's settled down. You may go home,' but how come we regain our life there?" Misawa said.

He said even if the no-go zone is relaxed, many of the shops, restaurants and hospitals that make up a town may remain shut.

Many families have also already decided that the unknown health risks of returning to their homes are not worth taking.

With no confidence in reopening his restaurant in Minamisoma, north of the plant, Misawa is undecided about whether to return home when the time comes.

"It's tough to live without knowing where to go," he said. "Being in limbo is a heavy burden."

Asked if he plans to send New Year greeting cards -- Japan's major New Year tradition -- Misawa replied: "No. I have decided to skip it this year. We are not in a mood to write, 'A happy new year.'"

China limits foreign auto investment: Xinhua

BEIJING, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - China said Thursday it will "withdraw support" for foreign investment in auto manufacturing to encourage domestic industry in the world's largest car market.

Some of the world's biggest car firms, including General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen, have long had operations in China, but the state news agency said Beijing would "withdraw support for foreign capital in auto manufacturing".

The move, announced by the National Reform and Development Commission and the Ministry of Commerce, comes as auto sales slump and Beijing tries to shore up the domestic economy against a forecast slowdown.

The new obstacles to foreign auto makers, due to go into effect on January 30, come "because of the need of the healthy development of domestic auto making," the NDRC and commerce ministry said, according to Xinhua.

The report did not provide specific details of what the withdrawal of support might amount to, nor were they immediately available from either organisation's web site.

But the measure comes as China's auto sales slow and just 10 days after Saab was forced into bankruptcy following successful efforts by GM to block Chinese companies from acquiring the Swedish car maker.

Sales in the world's biggest auto market rose more than 32 percent last year to a record 18.06 million units, but the sector has since lost steam after Beijing phased out sales incentives such as tax breaks for small-engine cars.

Auto sales in China slid 2.4 percent in November from a year earlier to around 1.66 million vehicles, marking the second straight monthly decline.

China, which overtook the United States to become the world's top auto market in 2009, has become increasingly important for global players such as GM and Volkswagen.

As China's overall auto sales have dropped, some foreign firms have fared well, with GM showing a more than 20 percent sales rise in November from a year earlier, bolstered by strong demand for passenger cars.

In the first 11 months of this year, GM sold around 2.35 million vehicles in China, up more than 8.0 percent from the same period last year.

In September, GM China Group president Kevin Wale forecast China's total auto sales will reach 19 million units this year, marking growth of around five percent from the record 18.06 million units sold last year.

Industry group the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers also expects growth in car sales for the whole of 2011 to be just five percent, down from an earlier forecast of 10-15 percent.

The moves against the international auto sector come fast on the heels of Beijing's decision earlier this month to hike tariffs on US passenger cars and sports utility vehicles with engine capacities of 2.5 liters or more.

China challenged the US to bring a complaint to the World Trade Organisation.

The NDRC and commerce ministry also said China will ease restrictions on foreign investment in some sectors while lifting caps on the proportion of foreign capital in others.

In the first 11 months of 2011, China attracted $103.77 billion in foreign direct investment, up 13.15 percent from a year earlier, Xinhua said.

 Signs that China's economy is in for a hard year ahead are seen in government forecasts which halve the export growth on which the nation's economy heavily depends, as economic turmoil in Europe and the United States bites.

Kindle sales on fire: Amazon

NEW YORK, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - Amazon said Thursday that it sold more than one million Kindles a week in December with the new Kindle Fire tablet computer its top-selling item.

"2011 was the best holiday ever for the Kindle family as customers purchased millions of Kindle Fires and millions of Kindle e-readers," the Seattle-based online retail giant said in a statement.

Amazon said the Kindle Fire has been the "number one best-selling, most gifted, and most wished for product" on Amazon.com since it went on sale 13 weeks ago.

Besides the Kindle Fire, Amazon offers a range of Kindle electronic book readers.

Amazon said it sold "well over" one million Kindle devices per week in December with the Kindle Touch and basic Kindle taking the top two spots after the Fire.

Amazon said the Kindle is its best-selling item in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain in addition to the United States.

The company said "gifting" of Kindle books between November 25 and Christmas Day rose 175 percent compared to the holiday period last year with Christmas Day the biggest day ever for Kindle book downloads.

Despite the rosy sales numbers for the gadgets, Amazon shares were trading lower on Wall Street on Thursday after Goldman Sachs said in a research note that the online titan may fall short of fourth-quarter earnings expectations.

Goldman Sachs noted that according to industry tracker comScore, US online spending for the first 56 days of the November-December holiday season rose 15 percent over the same period last year to $35.3 billion.

"On average, Amazon's year-over-year sales growth in the fourth quarter has outpaced holiday season eCommerce by 23 points," Goldman Sachs said.

"As such, the comScore data released today would imply top line growth of 38 percent year-over-year to $17.87 billion, slightly below current consensus of $18.19 billion, up 40 percent year-over-year," it said.

Amazon shares were down 1.49 percent at $171.30 at mid-day on Wall Street.

The Kindle Fire costs $199, less than half the price of the cheapest iPad from tablet market leader Apple.

It has a seven-inch (17.78-centimeter) screen, smaller than the iPad's 9.7 inches, connects to the Web using Wi-Fi and is powered by Google's Android software.

It does not have a camera or the 3G connectivity featured on other tablets but it gives buyers easy access to Amazon's online store, which sells books, music, movies, television shows, games and other content.


Huge waves damage anti-whaling boat

SYDNEY, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - Anti-whaling activists chasing the Japanese harpoon fleet suffered a major setback Thursday when the hull of one of their ships cracked in massive seas, forcing a second to divert to its rescue.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said the Brigitte Bardot's hull split when it was struck by a "rogue wave" as it tailed the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru in six metre (20-foot) swells some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) southwest of Australia.

"The crack has been getting wider as the seas continue to pound the vessel," the activist group said.

Sea Shepherd spokesman Paul Watson said lead vessel the Steve Irwin was en route to the troubled Brigitte Bardot, which has also suffered severe damage to one of its pontoons, but warned it would take 20 hours to get there.

The Bardot's captain, South African-born Jonathan Miles Renecle, was "confident that the ship will stay afloat until the Steve Irwin arrives" he added.

"This is disappointing but these are hostile seas and we have always been prepared for situations like this," Watson said.

"Right now the safety of my crew on the Brigitte Bardot is our priority and we intend to reach the crew and then do what we can to save our ship."

The incident means just one Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, is now tailing the Japanese fleet, which it intercepted on Sunday with the help of a military-style drone.

Watson said all the crew were safe and uninjured and the Bardot, Sea Shepherd's scout vessel, was "repairable".

"We'll be bringing it back to Fremantle and then the Steve Irwin will return to support the Bob Barker," he told Sky News via satellite phone from the Southern Ocean, estimating that it would be a five-day trip.

"It's a setback, but you know, when you come down here you're facing a number of dangers, not just the Japanese whaling fleet but also the very remote area, it's a hostile area weather-wise with ice," he added.

Watson said it was Sea Shepherd's eighth season pursuing the whalers and it was "inevitable something (like this) is going to happen sometime, we'll just deal with it and carry on.

"I'm still confident that we'll be able to intervene against the Japanese whaling operations," he said.

Australia's Maritime Safety Authority said it had been monitoring the situation but there was no active rescue afoot because Sea Shepherd was managing the situation.

"We were aware of it, but it was really a monitoring brief for us because it was a Sea Shepherd vessel to which another Sea Shepherd vessel was going to the aid," a spokesman told AFP.

"We were in communication with them but they've got it under control themselves now."

Japan's Fisheries Agency, which commissions the annual whale hunt, routinely refuses to comment on the issue and declined to be drawn on the damaged boat Thursday.

"I cannot make any comment related to the (whaling) mission," an agency official said.

Sea Shepherd purchased the Australian-flagged Brigitte Bardot, a high-speed 100-foot monohull racer, to replace the futuristic speedboat Ady Gil, which sank during a fierce clash with the harpooners in January 2010.

Watson said there were 10 crew on board the stricken Bardot -- three Britons, three Americans, an Australian, a Canadian, a Belgian and its South African captain Renecle.

Commercial whaling is banned under an international treaty but Japan has since 1987 used a loophole to carry out "lethal research" in the name of science -- a practice condemned by environmentalists and anti-whaling nations.

Confrontations between the whalers and increasingly sophisticated activists have escalated in recent years and the Japanese cut their hunt short last season due to Sea Shepherd harassment.

Japan's coastguard has deployed an unspecified number of vessels to protect the whaling ships, using some tsunami reconstruction funds, and the whalers are also suing the activists in Washington seeking an injunction against what they say is a "life-threatening" campaign.

Prominent activist couple goes on trial in China

BEIJING, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - Chinese rights activist Ni Yulan and her husband went on trial in Beijing Thursday after helping victims of land grabs, the latest activists to appear in court amid a crackdown on political dissent.

Ni and Dong Jiqin were detained in April as authorities rounded up scores of rights defenders and activists amid anonymous online calls for protests in China similar to those that swept across the Arab world.

A court spokesman said Ni and Dong had been charged with "picking quarrels, provoking trouble and willfully destroying private and public property as well as abusing other people repeatedly in aggravated circumstances."

"Ni Yulan has also been charged with fraud and fabricating facts. The case is being heard in accordance with the law," the spokesman, who refused to be named, told reporters outside the courthouse.

The trial comes after a court in southwest China's Guizhou province Monday sentenced veteran activist Chen Xi, who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protest movement, to 10 years in jail for subversion.

Another longtime dissident Chen Wei was jailed for nine years in Sichuan province on Friday, also for subversion.

Ni and Dong have provided legal assistance to numerous families around China who have been forcibly evicted from their homes in government-backed land requisitions.

Their battle to oppose the land grabs began in 2001 after their courtyard home in central Beijing was requisitioned and marked for demolition.

Rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday called for authorities to release the couple.

Trained as a lawyer, Ni was sentenced to a year in jail in 2002 for "obstructing official business" and for two years in 2008 for "harming public property" -- charges brought against her as she tried to protect her home.

She was also disbarred in 2002. The couple say they have not been compensated for the loss of their home.

According to Amnesty International, Ni's knee caps and feet were broken when she was detained in 2002, and she has been confined to a wheelchair ever since.

"The Chinese authorities have made Ni Yulan's life unbearable, subjecting her to detention and beatings that have left her unable to walk," Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement.

The charge of subversion is often used to put away government critics -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was convicted on the same charge in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The plight of human rights activists in China has come under the spotlight since Liu was awarded the prestigious prize in 2010, with the West pressing for the release of all political prisoners.

Japan's pro-Pyongyang Koreans say goodbye to Kim

TOKYO, December 29, 2011 (AFP) - Thousands of ethnic Koreans in Japan gathered to pay their respects to late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on Thursday as Pyongyang marked the end of an official period of mourning.

Ethnic Koreans loyal to the regime gathered in several major cities, including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

In the Japanese capital a stream of mourners dressed in black arrived at a Korean cultural centre.

North Korean international footballer Jong Tae-Se, who was born in Japan and now plays in Germany, was among those seen at a ceremony in the central city of Nagoya.

The events come after a stream of low-key commemorations in Japan for Kim, whose death was announced on December 19, and tie in with a nationwide memorial service in North Korea, where his son Kim Jong-Un appears to be consolidating his grip on power.

Since news of Kim senior's death emerged last week, pro-Pyongyang Koreans in Japan have kept a low profile and mostly ignored the occasionally large media presence at the headquarters of Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Tokyo, North Korea's de facto embassy.

Koreans make up Japan's second biggest ethnic minority behind Chinese, numbering 566,000. Many are descendants of migrants and forced workers who came to Japan during the 1910 to 1945 occupation of the peninsula.

Membership of Chongryon has been estimated at around 40,000 by a rival group loyal to the South.

Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties.

Pyongyang has admitted to kidnapping a number of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 80s to train its spies, and allowed some of them to return, but Tokyo believes it is hiding others.

North Korea says Japan has never atoned for its aggressive occupation of the Korean peninsula and demands compensation.