Taiwan confiscates 2,200 guns ahead of polls: report

TAIPEI, January  7, 2012 (AFP) - Taiwanese authorities have confiscated more than 2,200 guns in a bid to thwart election-related crime in the run-up to next week's presidential and legislative polls, a report said Saturday.

Prosecutor-general Huang Shyh-ming was quoted by the state Central News Agency as saying that he was determined to prevent any shooting incidents that would affect the elections and "disgrace Taiwan's democracy."

He was referring to two election-eve shootings in 2004 and 2010, which were said to have swayed the close polls with the losing side crying foul.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) claimed that such a shooting which injured former vice president Lien Chan's son had skewed the results in the 2010 regional elections to benefit the ruling party.

The incident revived painful memories of another election-eve shooting in 2004, when then president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was shot while campaigning for re-election.

The KMT alleged that shooting was staged to generate sympathy for Chen, who eventually won by a razor-thin margin in a disputed election that plunged Taiwan into months of political turmoil.

President Ma Ying-jeou and the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen are locked in a tight race, while independent James Soong is trailing far behind in the January 14 vote.

The prosecutor-general's office was not immediately available for comment.

Taiwan Ponkan Mandarin Oranges and Persimmons Available in Singapore

Mandarin oranges are a must-have fruit for Chinese New Year. Often regarded as the sweetest variety among the different types of mandarin orange, the Taiwan ponkan mandarin orange with its rich gold colour and high quality is a perennial favourite of Singaporeans, whether as a snack or festive gift.
To cater to market demand, a total of 322 tonnes of ponkan mandarin oranges have been shipped from Taichung City to Singapore and are available for sale at Giant and Sheng Siong supermarkets.  According to the Agriculture Bureau of Taichung City government, the ponkan mandarin orange is mainly produced in Fengyuan, Shigang, Tungshih and Dakeng in Taichung.  It is rich in fibre, Vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium, phosphate and zinc.  Additionally, customers can be assured of food safety as the ponkan mandarin orange has obtained the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification awarded by the Council of Agriculture in Taiwan.
In addition, sweet persimmons from Motaining, Taichung mark their maiden entry into the Singapore market this year.  Cultivated at between 600 to 1200 metres above sea level, the persimmons are not only sweet and succulent but are also rich in health promoting nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. 

Singapore NATIONAL TEAM PADDLERS JOIN SEMBCORP VOLUNTEERS TO CLEAN THE HOMES OF THE NEEDY ELDERLYEAM PADDLERS JOIN SEMBCORP VOLUNTEERS TO CLEAN THE HOMES OF THE NEEDY ELDERLY For the third year running, Sembcorp Industries (Sembcorp) has partnered with Sunshine Welfare Action Mission (SWAMI) to bring festive cheer to needy elderly households in the run-up to the Lunar New Year. This year, they were joined by the National Men’s and Women’s Table Tennis Teams to spring clean 25 homes of the needy elderly at Marsiling earlier today. Singapore’s top paddlers together with budding young players like Pang Xuejie rolled up their sleeves and took part in this morning’s cleaning with over 100 volunteers from Sembcorp. This heartwarming initiative was organised by Sembcorp in cooperation with SWAMI, a non-profit organisation providing nursing care and shelter for the sick, aged and handicapped from less fortunate backgrounds. This year, SWAMI identified 25 households in Marsiling, of which many of the residents do not have the ease of movement due to illness or age, and would not be able to carry out the traditional pre-Lunar New Year spring cleaning themselves. Sembcorp volunteers and our National paddlers hence came in to clean their homes for them, giving them a fresher and brighter start to the Year of the Dragon. Besides being an excellent opportunity for the National paddlers and Sembcorp staff to participate in volunteerism initiatives, this activity is also a great way for volunteers to interact and reach out directly to the local community. Mr Tang Kin Fei, Sembcorp Group President & CEO, said, “We are happy to be able to play our part to give back to the community and make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Sembcorp has always been committed to supporting worthy causes and this is no exception. This year, we are especially pleased to have our National Table Tennis Teams joining us. I am very proud of all our volunteers as their enthusiasm and act of kindness will go a long way to touch the hearts of those in need.” Sembcorp is also a proud sponsor of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) when it signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with STTA in December 2010, marking the beginning of a long-term relationship between STTA and Sembcorp. Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC & President of the Singapore Table Tennis Association, said, “Community service provides our paddlers with the valuable opportunity to give back and experience the diversity of our local community. I strongly believe that it is important to care for the less fortunate and we hope that through our simple acts of giving and sharing, we are able to bring joy to the elderly folks.”

For the third year running, Sembcorp Industries (Sembcorp) has partnered with Sunshine Welfare Action Mission (SWAMI) to bring festive cheer to needy elderly households in the run-up to the Lunar New Year.

This year, they were joined by the National Men’s and Women’s Table Tennis Teams to spring clean 25 homes of the needy elderly at Marsiling earlier today.

Singapore’s top paddlers together with budding young players like Pang Xuejie rolled up their sleeves and took part in this morning’s cleaning with over 100 volunteers from Sembcorp.
This heartwarming initiative was organised by Sembcorp in cooperation with SWAMI, a non-profit organisation providing nursing care and shelter for the sick, aged and handicapped from less fortunate backgrounds. This year, SWAMI identified 25 households in Marsiling, of which many of the residents do not have the ease of movement due to illness or age, and would not be able to carry out the traditional pre-Lunar New Year spring cleaning themselves. Sembcorp volunteers and our National paddlers hence came in to clean their homes for them, giving them a fresher and brighter start to the Year of the Dragon.

Besides being an excellent opportunity for the National paddlers and Sembcorp staff to participate in volunteerism initiatives, this activity is also a great way for volunteers to interact and reach out directly to the local community.

Mr Tang Kin Fei, Sembcorp Group President & CEO, said, “We are happy to be able to play our part to give back to the community and make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Sembcorp has always been committed to supporting worthy causes and this is no exception. This year, we are especially pleased to have our National Table Tennis Teams joining us. I am very proud of all our volunteers as their enthusiasm and act of kindness will go a long way to touch the hearts of those in need.”

Sembcorp is also a proud sponsor of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) when it signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with STTA in December 2010, marking the beginning of a long-term relationship between STTA and Sembcorp.

Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC & President of the Singapore Table Tennis Association, said, “Community service provides our paddlers with the valuable opportunity to give back and experience the diversity of our local community. I strongly believe that it is important to care for the less fortunate and we hope that through our simple acts of giving and sharing, we are able to bring joy to the elderly folks.”

Paul repudiates attack on 'China Jon' Huntsman

NASHUA, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Republican White House hopeful Ron Paul on Friday repudiated an ad, made by a supporter, that attacks rival Jon Huntsman over his ties to China and suggests he was brainwashed by Beijing.

"I haven't look at it, but I understand it's an ugly ad, and I've disavowed it," Paul told reporters after a rally here ahead of New Hampshire's January 10 nominating primary, adding: "Obviously, it was way, way out order."

The ad, posted on popular video sharing site YouTube by "NHLiberty4Paul," shows footage of Huntsman, who served as President Barack Obama's first envoy to China, speaking Mandarin and holding his adoptive daughters.

The ad features Gracie -- whom the Huntsmans adopted after she was found abandoned at a Chinese vegetable market aged two months -- and Asha, who was abandoned in a rural Indian village.

Interspersed among the images are short text messages, including: "The Manchurian candidate: What's he hiding?" "American values, Or Chinese?" "Weak on China? Wonder Why?"

In the 1962 film "Manchurian Candidate," Soviet forces capture a US soldier and son of a prominent conservative family during the Korean War and brainwash him in Manchuria to make him assassinate a presidential candidate.

"American Values and Liberty: Vote Ron Paul," the ad ends.

Huntsman himself reportedly said at a campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire, that the ad was "just stupid" and objected to using images of his children "and suggesting there is some sinister motive there."

US explains foreign policy to Twitter followers

WASHINGTON, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - The US State Department on Friday launched a new high-tech form of outreach to the international community when it took questions on foreign policy from Twitter followers in different languages.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland answered a number of tweets from followers in English as well as those arriving in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu.

Nuland answered on camera in a broadcast that was carried several hours later on YouTube.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "is encouraging all of us to use new technology and innovation as a key part of our foreign policy agenda," Nuland said in her presentation of a format to be used every Friday in January.

"We're adopting new approaches to meet diplomatic and development challenges around the globe," she said in a room where she briefs journalists daily.

"Part of this effort is making sure that we are using full use of digital networks and social technologies to more quickly and directly engage audiences around the world," Nuland added.

A question on the State Department's Farsi feed, @USAdarFarsi, said: "Iran is about to cut off the Internet. What's the status?...  And what is the US procedure on the new threat to the US Navy?"

She took the opportunity to lash out at Iran's crackdown on freedom of expression.

"I'd like to say that Iran is more adept at blocking the free flow of information to its citizens than almost any other country in the world," Nuland said.

"And we are deeply concerned about new reports of measures that Iran is taking to curtail Internet freedom, including draconian surveillance techniques and the creation of a national Internet, which would essentially cut Iran's citizens off from the global Internet conversation," she said.

Other questions arrived on the State Department's Arabic, Chinese and English feeds.

New book describes tension over US first lady

WASHINGTON, January  7, 2012 (AFP) - A new book detailing life in the White House describes high tension under the tenure of Barack Obama as First Lady Michelle Obama struggled with his top aides over the direction of his presidency.

She "cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure" but battled with White House advisors on compromise deals he had cut with Republicans, growing frustrated that he was being viewed as an "ordinary politician," according to the book out Tuesday by journalist Jodi Kantor.

The New York Times writer, who said she has interviewed some 30 current and former Obama employees along with friends of the couple, paints a picture of the First Lady struggling to find her footing within the White House ever since she moved to Washington with her husband and two daughters in 2009.

Crisis erupted, according to Kantor, from extracts of the book, in early 2010 when Michelle Obama felt the administration had cut too many deals compromising her husband's signature health care reform legislation.

Obama's then-top adviser Rahm Emanuel denied "he had grown frustrated with Mrs. Obama, but other advisers described a grim situation: a president whose agenda had hit the rocks, a first lady who disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence."

Key to the first lady's frustration was anxiety "about the gap between her vision of her husband's presidency and the reality of what he could deliver," Kantor wrote in the book, titled "The Obamas."

The first lady had sought to involve herself in promoting the president's agenda, but advisers, wary of a similar situation under president Bill Clinton where his wife Hillary attempted to promote a health care in the 1990s, "mostly declined her offer."

Carrefour joins shark fin boycott in Singapore

SINGAPORE, January  7, 2012 (AFP) - French retail giant Carrefour will halt sales of shark fin products in its Singapore outlets after current stocks run out as a supermarket boycott of the delicacy gains steam, media reported Saturday.

A Carrefour spokesman told the Straits Times it will not replenish its stocks of the environmentally controversial products after they sell out.
The company is the world's second-largest retailer and operates two supermarkets in Singapore's city centre.

It told the paper the decision was made on its own initiative as a socially responsible retailer, but it could not be reached for comment on whether the ban would extend to its other outlets worldwide.

Shark fin remains a sought after delicacy in Singapore, where it is largely served at Chinese festive celebrations and wedding receptions.
According to the conservation group WWF, the city-state is the world's second largest shark fin trading centre after Hong Kong.

WWF-Hong Kong says the consumption of shark fins is a driving factor behind the threat to shark populations, with more than 180 species considered threatened in 2010 compared to only 15 in 1996.

The Carrefour report came a day after Singapore's largest supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice declared it was halting sales of shark fin products.

NTUC FairPrice -- a cooperative run by the city-state's national trades union -- said it would drop the products from April after an inflammatory comment by one of its suppliers attracted a flurry of complaints.

The supplier had said "Screw the divers!" in an online promotional message for a new product to be launched at FairPrice outlets during the upcoming Lunar New Year.

The comment, apparently directed at divers campaigning against the shark fin trade, went viral on Facebook and microblogging site Twitter.

Retailer Cold Storage was the first Singapore chain to stop selling shark fin, which it did in September last year as part of a collaboration with WWF, local media reported.

Obama says economy 'moving in right direction'

WASHINGTON, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Friday welcomed news that unemployment fell in December, saying it shows the world's largest economy is gaining strength, even if there is more work to do.

Casting himself as a champion of middle-class Americans at the start of an election year, Obama said "we are making progress, we are moving in the right direction."

In a keenly awaited reading of the ailing jobs market, the Labor Department earlier reported the jobless rate fell to 8.5 percent and 200,000 jobs were added in December.

"This morning we learned that American businesses added another 212,000 jobs last month. All together more private sector jobs were created in 2011 than any year since 2005," Obama said to modest applause.

"There are a lot of people who are still hurting out there. After losing eight million jobs in the recession, obviously we have a lot more work to do."

Obama's remarks came during a visit to the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and just days after he risked the ire of Congress by appointing its director while lawmakers were in recess.

Obama also used the event to tout the agency and urge Congress to extend a payroll tax cut for the rest of 2012.

"When Congress returns they should extend the middle-class tax cut, for all of this year to make sure we can keep this recovery going. It is the right thing to do, there should not be delay, there should not be a lot of drama," he said.

"We have made real progress, now is not the time to stop. I would urge Congress to make sure they stay on top of their jobs."

Beijing to issue new air quality data after online outcry

BEIJING, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Beijing's government on Friday bowed to a vocal online campaign for a change in the way air quality is measured in the Chinese capital, one of the world's most polluted cities.

Authorities said they would start publishing figures this month showing the smallest, most dangerous pollution particles in the air after considering the wishes of residents, expressed on China's popular microblogs.

The Chinese capital currently bases its air quality information on particles of 10 micrometers or larger, known as PM10, and does not take into account the smaller particulates that experts say are most harmful to human health.

But authorities came under huge pressure to change the system last year when they ranked the air as only slightly polluted, despite thick smog that forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and triggered a surge in face mask sales.

The local government already measures particles of 2.5 micrometers or less, known as PM2.5, but China's environment ministry had said the data would not be available nationwide until 2016.

On Friday the Beijing Environmental Bureau said it would provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measure ahead of the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, which starts on January 23, in response to the flood of public anger.

"The authorities plan to release air-quality monitoring data using PM2.5 before Spring Festival," a bureau official surnamed Jiang told AFP.

"The government has to consider the pleas of the people, so yes, the anger of Beijing citizens these days is a big contributor to our action."

Public anger was exacerbated by the discrepancy between the official data and that issued online and on Twitter by the US embassy in Beijing, which conducts its own measures of PM2.5 and frequently registers dangerous pollution levels.

Many bloggers hailed the embassy's role in the Beijing government's apparent change of heart, although others expressed scepticism as to whether authorities really intended to be more transparent about China's pollution.

"The trend nowadays is to clean up problems only when they show," posted one user under the name Qiong Xiaobing on Sina's weibo -- China's biggest microblog.

"We don't care about data or figures, there's nothing we can do about pollution even if it exceeds the limit," wrote another Sina weibo user under the name Hebo HB.

"We have already been living like this for decades, we only wish the government would not cheat us."

China has the world's largest online population, with around half a billion web users, posing a growing challenge to authorities in a country that tightly controls its media.

Although censored, the microblogs are proving to be a highly effective public platform for people to call officials to account and report government or corporate malpractice and other problems.

Beijing authorities said last month they had met their target of "blue sky" days for 2011, with 274 days of "grade one or two" air quality compared with 252 days in 2010.

But the state-run China Daily has said that if PM2.5 were used as China's main standard, only 20 percent of Chinese cities would be rated as having satisfactory air quality, against the current 80 percent.

Beijing authorities have pledged to set up 500 bike rental kiosks around the city this year that will offer 20,000 bicycles in a bid to ease congestion, and are also mulling new bike lanes, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The capital will also open four more subway lines in 2012, bringing the total to 19, it added.

International organisations including the United Nations list Beijing as one of the most polluted cities in the world, mainly due to its growing energy consumption, much of which is still fuelled by coal.

A doubling of coal consumption over the last decade and booming auto sales that have made China the world's biggest car market have negated the impact of pollution control efforts in recent years.

Wang Qiuxia, an air pollution expert with Chinese group GreenBeagle, said the new measures would raise awareness of pollution hazards but warned that cleaning up Beijing's air would be a long process.

"According to some assessments it will take 20 years before we see an improvement in Beijing's air quality, provided that proper measures are adopted," Wang said.

'Saudi' hackers expose more Israeli credit card details

JERUSALEM, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - A group of Saudi hackers calling themselves group-xp published details of more than 6,000 Israeli credit cards online in the second such incident in three days, army radio reported on Friday.

Details of the latest incident were revealed on Thursday in a Internet posting by a hacker who goes by the name "0xOmar" from group-xp who said he had posted details of 11,000 cards online.

But, Israel's three major credit card companies said the number of cards affected was only 6,050, the radio reported.

Earlier this week, 0xOmar posted a message on an Israeli sports website saying group-xp, which he described as the "greatest Saudi Arabian hacker team" had posted details of 400,000 Israeli cards online.

After examining the details, Israel's major credit card companies said only 14,000 valid cards had been exposed.

"I have added another 11,000 credit cards which contains IsraCards and DinnerDash cards," 0xOmar wrote in his posting.

"This database contains 60,000 credit cards which also has MasterCard and Visa cards, but I'll send them later among with a lot of others," he said, claiming to have also hacked data from Israeli military contractor firms.

Yoram HaCohen, a senior official from the justice ministry told the radio he was "not so worried about the credit cards themselves" which could be cancelled, but about "the personal information which has been exposed, such as email addresses, passwords and ID card numbers."

He admitted it would be "difficult to track down the hackers behind these attacks because they take good precautions" and said Israel may turn to Interpol over the issue.

Grenade attacks hit Mekong in Myanmar

BANGKOK, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - An unidentified rebel group fired grenades targeting Myanmar soldiers on the Mekong river near the border with Thailand, but missed their target, Thai police said Friday.

The grenades landed early Wednesday near the patrol boat, which was accompanying four Chinese cargo ships that had docked at a pier in Tachileik district in eastern Shan state, Police Colonel Atthawoot Onsub said.

"It was an attack which I think they aimed at the Myanmar patrol boat. The unknown rebel group fired grenades... the grenades missed the target," the marine police chief in northern Thailand told AFP.

The incident happened near the so-called "Golden Triangle" area, notorious for drugs smuggling.

Chinese state media said last month that Beijing had deployed more than 300 armed police to patrol the Mekong river in boats in collaboration with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos after a deadly attack in October.

Thirteen Chinese sailors were killed on a section of the river south of China's border, raising concerns in Beijing for the safety of crews and cargoes sailing south through the area.

The Mekong flows through China's southwestern province of Yunnan into Southeast Asia, serving as a major trade route through several countries including Cambodia and Vietnam.

KFC owner clears final hurdle to buy China food chain

BEIJING, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Little Sheep, a Chinese restaurant chain, said Friday its shareholders approved a buy-out bid by the owners of KFC, in what will be one of the first successful foreign takeovers of a major Chinese brand.

US-based Yum!, which already owns 27.2 percent of Little Sheep, announced in April its plan to take over the firm in a deal that valued it at more than $860 million, and China's commerce ministry gave its go-ahead last November.

In a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange where it is listed, Little Sheep said Friday the majority of its shareholders had approved the takeover proposal.

Trading of its shares was suspended on Friday pending the announcement, and will resume Monday. The firm expects the last day of trading on the exchange to be January 12, it added.

Little Sheep is a hugely popular chain of restaurants specialising in mutton-themed hot pot, or so-called Chinese fondue. It has 458 directly owned or franchised restaurants in the country and another 22 overseas.

The commerce ministry's green light surprised some investors, who expected the proposed buy-out to fall foul of China's monopoly laws, which analysts have suggested are used to prevent foreign firms getting a hold in key sectors.

A bid by Coca-Cola to take over China's largest juice maker Huiyuan nearly three years ago, was blocked by authorities who said they were concerned about its impact on competition.

Yum! has nearly 3,500 KFC outlets in China, as well as 560 Pizza Hut restaurants, making it one of the most successful foreign firms in the country. It also owns fast food chain Taco Bell.

Tibetan self-immolates in China: rights groups

BEIJING, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - At least one Tibetan man set himself on fire near the restive Kirti monastery in southwest China on Friday, rights groups said, the 13th such act to hit Tibetan areas in less than a year.

The incident happened in Sichuan province's Aba county, the scene of sporadic bouts of unrest since a young monk named Phuntsog self-immolated last March, Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said.

Rights groups say nine monks and two nuns have set themselves on fire over the past year in Sichuan to protest against the perceived religious repression of Tibetan Buddhists, and that at least seven have died. Another former monk self-immolated in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The London-based Free Tibet, citing eye witness accounts, said that a man -- believed to be a lay person -- set himself on fire near Kirti and called for the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

The group said Chinese forces extinguished the flames and took him away to an undisclosed location, and his condition is unknown.

Aba town hospital would not comment when contacted by AFP, calls to Kirti monastery and local police went unanswered, and officials at the Aba government and Communist Party Committee said they did not know about the situation.

The rights group said that a second person also set themselves on fire nearby at around the same time on Friday afternoon, and died.

Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for ICT, told AFP she could confirm at least one Tibetan had set themselves on fire in Aba, but the group was still seeking full confirmation of the second incident.

"We can only expect that such acts of protest will continue for as long as world leaders turn a blind eye to the desperate situation in Tibet," Stephanie Brigden, head of Free Tibet, said in a statement.

"People in Ngaba (Aba) continue to live under security restrictions. Chinese authorities are trying to control all communications", Brigden said.

"There has been no Internet access in the town since the first self-immolation in March 2011 and local people are fearful that their telephones are bugged", she added.

In Nepal in November, a Tibetan exile chanting anti-China slogans briefly set himself on fire, before fellow protesters put out the flames.

A Tibetan demonstrator in the Indian capital New Delhi also set himself alight the same month, before police intervened.

The Dalai Lama has condemned self-immolations, which many Buddhists believe are contrary to their faith, but said recently Tibetans faced "cultural genocide" under hardline Chinese rule that he blamed for the protests.

Many Tibetans in China accuse the government of enacting religious repression and eroding their culture, as the country's majority Han ethnic group increasingly moves into historically Tibetan areas.

But China rejects this, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and pointing to huge ongoing investment, which it says has brought modernisation and a better standard of living.

CEO of Singapore metro train operator quits

SINGAPORE, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore's metro train operator said Friday its chief executive had resigned amid strong public criticism over the worst breakdown since the system was launched 24 years ago.

SMRT Corp said that the firm's board of directors had accepted the resignation offer of chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa.

Board member Tan Ek Kia, a former oil industry executive, will lead SMRT while the board searches for a new CEO, the company said in a filing with the Singapore Exchange.

The resignation came amid public anger over two major breakdowns in the train service that happened in succession last month that stranded tens of thousands of commuters.

Many of the commuters were trapped in trains stalled underground after a power fault hit the SMRT network's North-South line during the evening rush hour.

In one of the breakdowns, service was disrupted for seven hours.

Last month's disruptions were the worst since the city-state's Mass Rapid Transit system was launched in 1987.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has ordered the creation of a special committee to investigate the breakdown, saying that confidence in the system must be restored.

The publicly listed metro operator is 54 percent owned by state investment agency Temasek Holdings, as of March 2011.

Singapore has a population of just over five million. Most are dependent on public transport because of the prohibitive cost of cars.

SMRT shares closed 1.13 percent higher Friday to Sg$1.785. The announcement of the resignation came after the stock market had closed.


Internet fuels Palestinian drive for free expression

RAMALLAH, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Inspired by the role of social media in the Arab Spring, Palestinians have harnessed the same tools, under the wary gaze of the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.

In both parts of the Palestinian territory, ordinary people and activists have taken to social networking to share their hopes, mobilise demonstrations and call for government reform.

Sabri Saydam, former Palestinian minister for technology, says the use of social media to bring about political change was bound to happen, given the high number of Facebook users across the territories, particularly in Gaza.

"We have one million Palestinian subscribers to Facebook in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem," he told AFP.

"Usually, people (in the region) would have been inspired by the Palestinian cause, but in 2011 things changed and the Palestinians were inspired by the Arab revolutions and started using that, even though the atmosphere and the environment were different."

Early in 2011, as the Arab uprisings were beginning, activists in the West Bank and Gaza used Facebook, Twitter and text messaging in a campaign to end the bitter split between the rival national movements, Fatah and Hamas.

Their efforts culminated in massive March 15 protests, and six weeks later the factions said they were patching up their differences and ending years of bloody rivalry, driven in no small part by the huge public protests.

Since then, new technology has played a central role in rallying the Nakba border protests on the anniversary of Israel's creation, the bid for full UN membership and the campaign to boycott products made in Jewish settlements.

Although activists already use social media to document and expose rights abuses by settlers or clashes with the Israeli army, its use for domestic political activism is more limited.

And its emerging role as a platform for everyone from the politically motivated to the spiritually disillusioned has not gone unnoticed by Gaza's Hamas rulers or by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a US-based Internet rights watchdog, says Palestinian social media face both surveillance and self-censorship.

"You have people arrested here all the time, of course, but it's really hard to know who is being surveilled," she told AFP on the sidelines of the first Palestinian social media conference in Ramallah last month.

In 2010, Walid Hassayen from the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya was arrested on charges of blasphemy, becoming perhaps the most high-profile example of a Palestinian being sanctioned for online activities.

On his Facebook page, written in the name "Allah," Hassayen allegedly poked fun at the Koran, and he also ran a blog in which he discussed religion.

He was arrested in October 2010 and sentenced to three years, raising cries of alarm from rights groups.

Last September he was released. But since then, he has rarely stepped out of the family home and now no longer goes online.

"I was accused of insulting religion and religious sentiments and of causing sectarian unrest," he told AFP by phone.

"There is nothing called freedom of speech in the Palestinian territories as I was only practising my right to freedom of expression and 

More recently, radio journalist George Cannawati found himself on the wrong side of the law after he criticised the government-run health authority in a posting on Facebook.

"I posted something on Facebook criticising the way the employees treated me and I was shocked to learn that Bethlehem governor Abdel Fatah Hamayel was suing me for libel, slander and defamation," he told AFP.

His posting was picked up by several Palestinian news websites, prompting the governor to take legal action, which ultimately failed on a technicality.

"They invaded my privacy and read the posting on my personal Facebook page, but I have the right to freedom of expression," he said.
In Gaza, users face an array of restrictions, including blocked pages, Israeli and Hamas surveillance and the possibility their posts will be used against them.

"The online surveillance is only a small component of what is happening," York said.

"It's very rare that somebody is only going to be targeted for something they've said online. In Palestine, it's like you're already an activist and they use something that you've said online against you."

In April 2010, 22-year-old Assad al-Saftawi was arrested by Gaza's Hamas rulers and charged with "slander" and "promoting lies inciting against the government" after he criticised them in a Facebook posting picked up by Al-Ayyam newspaper.

He was handed a six-month suspended sentence. A year later, he spent four days in detention over his role in organising the mass demonstrations of March 15.

Now he sometimes hesitates before posting, he says.

"In addition to Hamas surveillance, I also practise self-censorship to please my family which is worried about me," he told AFP. "But sometimes when you are angry, you just can't control it."

Hamas did not respond to requests from AFP to comment on the issue of online surveillance.

Saftawi says he no longer cares about being detained for speaking his mind.

"Now I am apathetic about being arrested," he said.

"If we all remain silent in the face of injustice, who is going to speak up?"

Ultra-thin laptops set to dazzle CES gadget fair

SAN FRANCISCO, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Ultra-thin laptops will take center-stage alongside new software and smartphones at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a gadget extravaganza that officially opens on Tuesday in Las Vegas.

The more than 2,700 exhibitors filling an excess of 1.8 million square feet - approximately 33 US football fields - will range from car, computer and chip makers to technology startups and iPhone accessory sellers.

Attendance at the four-day show was expected to be on par with the 149,000 people who showed up last year to see what sexy gizmos will vie for consumers' hearts and cash in the months ahead.

"With some 20,000 new products, CES really is the place to be to get the industry together, take stock of what is coming and get business done," said Tara Dunion of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes CES.

While tablet computers aspiring to unseat Apple's market-ruling iPads were the rage at last year's CES, slim yet powerful laptop computers referred to as "ultrabooks" are expected to crowd the spotlight next week.

CES organizers on Thursday predicted that 30 to 40 new ultrabook laptops would debut at the show.

China-based computer titan Lenovo on Thursday announced that a ThinkPad X1 Hybrid laptop -- boasting as much as 10 hours of battery life -- as well as the company's first business ultrabook, will debut at the show.

"The ThinkPad X1 Hybrid and T430u ultrabook represent the next generation in thin and light computing," said Lenovo ThinkPad's Dilip Bhatia.

"These new crossover laptops fundamentally change the way people think about mobile computing technology."

Forrester analyst Sarah Rothman Epps heralded the arrival of an ultrabook "sexy PC revolution."

"We expect to see thin-and-light, quick-boot designs from every PC (personal computer) manufacturer to rival the MacBook Air," Epps told AFP.

"The prices, mostly in the $1000 price range, are much more reasonable than they used to be for comparable PCs, but they're still not affordable for every PC buyer."

Lenovo's new ultrabook has a starting price of $849.

A Forrester survey late last year revealed that 22 percent of PC shoppers online in the United States said they would be interested in buying ultrabooks.

Electronics makers will also out new tablet computers at CES, but far less than last year, when more than 80 contenders were fielded.

Epps expects Motorola, Toshiba, Acer and others to introduce tablets powered by Google's latest Android software.

"Will they sell better than last year?... I don't expect to see any barn-burners, but there's reason to be optimistic."

The percentage of US tablet shoppers who say they prefer Android systems doubled to 18 percent in the first ten months of last year, according to Forrester.

Smartphones are meanwhile expected to upstage tablets at CES, with Android software powering many innovative handsets.

The heads of chip makers Intel and Qualcomm are to give keynote presentations about high-powered processors tailored to drive ever more sophisticated smartphones.

CES goers will also be watching for new devices running Microsoft's Windows 8 software.

Apple doesn't officially attend CES, but a section devoted to iPhone, iPod, and iPad accessories has tripled to 88,000 square feet in the past three years.

Google and Yahoo have played growing roles in CES as television set makers collaborate with the California technology firms to connect viewers to online shows and websites.

LG will debut as a Google TV maker at CES, where Sony and Samsung are to show off new Google TV devices.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will take part in a Tuesday panel discussion focused on "the next big thing" in consumer electronics.

Cars made smart with sensors, computer chips, and Internet connections will also be among the attention-getters at CES.

"We have more auto makers than ever before," Dunion said.

"There will also be a lot of announcements about charging stations and resources to prove electric cars are here and not some sort of distant concept."

As usual, CES will also boast a dizzying swirl of quirky gadgets and appearances by Hollywood stars, sports legends, and pop music icons.

YouTube vice president Robert Kyncl will deliver an "Entertainment Matters" keynote presentation at CES, while singing sensation Justin Bieber will help unveil a TOSY toy robot on Wednesday.

CES will be rife with wearable gadgets, including an Android watch, a wristband health monitor, and ski goggles with build in digital video cameras for live-streaming adventures online.

Innovations in 3D television will once again be touted, with backers hoping to finally stir marketplace demand for a format that has failed to catch on with consumers.

Technology companies also hope to catch a gesture-control wave set in motion by the success of Microsoft Kinect devices for Xbox 360 videogame consoles.

Three 'North Korean defectors' found off Japan

TOKYO, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Japan's coastguard said Friday they had found three people adrift in a small boat off the country's west coast with media reporting they are likely to be North Korean defectors.

"We confirmed three people were on board," a spokesman at the Japan Coast Guard said, adding their vessel was drifting about one kilometre (half a mile) off the western Japanese island of Oki.

Korean script was visible on the small wooden boat, the official said, while noting the agency had not confirmed where the three had come from. No further details were available immediately.

Jiji Press news agency and other media said they are believed to be North Koreans.

The three may be the first defectors from North Korea reaching Japan since the death of Kim Jong-Il in December.

The death of the leader in the reclusive state has sparked fears of an influx of refugees although Japan places tight restrictions on immigrants and asylum-seekers.

The bulk of would-be refugees from North Korea cross first into China in a bid to escape the repression, poverty and food shortages of the isolated communist state.

Many then travel on to South Korea, where around 21,000 have arrived since the end of the 1950-1953 war.

Nine North Koreans -- three men, three women and three children -- were picked up by Japan's coastguard in September after spending five days at sea in a rare seaborne defection.

They then travelled to South Korea to settle there.

Singapore supermarket chain to stop selling shark fin

SINGAPORE, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore's largest supermarket chain will stop selling shark fin products from April after an inflammatory comment by one of its suppliers triggered calls for a boycott from activists and the public.

NTUC FairPrice -- a cooperative run by the city-state's national trades union -- made the announcement Thursday after receiving hundreds of complaints.

The uproar was sparked by one of the chain's shark fin suppliers which made the comment "Screw the divers!" in an online promotional message for a new product to be launched at FairPrice outlets during the upcoming Lunar New Year.

The comment, apparently directed at divers campaigning against the shark fin trade, went viral on Facebook and microblogging site Twitter.
Many of the reactions advocated a boycott of the supplier and FairPrice.

In a statement, FairPrice chief executive Seah Kian Peng said the chain was ceasing sales of shark fin products by the end of March.
"This will be the last Chinese New Year in which customers can buy shark fin products at all our stores," said Seah.

Jennifer Lee, founder of Project Fin, a local group campaigning to reduce shark fin consumption, welcomed the supermarket chain's decision.

"It is encouraging to see FairPrice respond promptly to the public reaction. They can progress further by selling only sustainable food," she told AFP on Friday.

Online commentators were also quick to praise the decision.

"Thank you for putting sharks and the health of your customers before profit!," wrote "Shannon Veganista" on FairPrice's Facebook page.

Shark fin remains a sought after delicacy in the affluent Southeast Asian state, where it is largely served at Chinese festive celebrations and wedding receptions.

According to conservation group WWF, Singapore is the second largest shark fin trading centre after Hong Kong.

WWF-Hong Kong says the consumption of shark fins is a driving factor behind the threat to shark populations, with more than 180 species considered threatened in 2010 compared to only 15 in 1996.

In September last year, Cold Storage became the first supermarket chain in Singapore to stop shark fin sales as part of a collaboration with the WWF, local media reported.

Beijing to issue new air quality data after outcry

BEIJING, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Authorities in Beijing said Friday they will start publicising data on the tiny particles that make up much of the city's pollution this month, after a public outcry over air quality measurements.

The Chinese capital currently bases its air quality information on particles of 10 micrometers or larger, known as PM10, and does not take into account the smaller particulates that experts say are most harmful to human health.

But authorities have come under pressure from the public to change the way they rank air quality after thick smog blanketed Beijing late last year, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights and triggering a surge in face mask sales.

Official data showed the air was only slightly polluted, while figures published by the US embassy in Beijing, which measures the smaller particles, ranked it as "very unhealthy".

On Friday the Beijing Environmental Bureau said it would start publicising measures based on the smaller particles -- known as PM2.5 -- ahead of the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, which starts on January 23.

"The authorities plan to release air-quality monitoring data using PM2.5 before Spring Festival," a bureau official surnamed Jiang told AFP.

"The government has to consider the pleas of the people, so yes, the anger of Beijing citizens these days is a big contributor to our action."

The new measurements were ordered by Beijing's top communist official Liu Qi in a speech published Friday, Jiang said.

The data, previously only available for laboratory use and not disclosed to the public, will be released every hour via the bureau's website and other media, according to the state Xinhua news agency.

International organisations including the United Nations list Beijing as one of the most polluted cities in the world, mainly due to its growing energy consumption, much of which is still fuelled by coal.

Authorities in Beijing went to huge lengths to clean up the city's air ahead of the 2008 Olympics, shutting down coal-fired power stations and restricting the number of cars on the roads, but air quality in the city remains poor.

China hikes threshold for oil tax, helping firms

SHANGHAI, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - China has raised the threshold for a tax on crude oil charged to the nation's two biggest producers, the firms said, helping ease their financial burden and encourage output.

The Ministry of Finance hiked the minimum level for the levy to $55 per barrel, up from $40, PetroChina and the China Petroleum & Chemical Corp (Sinopec) said in statements late Thursday.

The move was retroactive to November 2011, they said.

Analysts said the move would help the corporate earnings of the companies and encourage oil production.

"It's time for the government to boost companies' enthusiasm for production," Wu Dazhong, an analyst at Shenyin Wanguo Securities, told AFP.

"This will definitely lift their stock prices, since investors believe the new policy will bring better corporate earnings," he said.
Investors cheered the news on Friday.

PetroChina was up 1.0 percent at 7.40 yuan in Shanghai by midday. Sinopec initially gained nearly two percent, but was down 0.3 percent to 7.40 yuan by midday.

In Hong Kong trading, PetroChina gained 2.5 percent to HK$10.64 by midday while Sinopec was up 1.9 percent at HK$8.81.

The new tax ranges from 20 to 40 percent of the price of a barrel of oil that costs more than $55.

Court denies Malaysians abroad right to vote

KUALA LUMPUR, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - A Malaysian high court ruled Friday that six Malaysians working in Britain do not have the right to cast their ballots abroad despite promises of electoral reforms.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has vowed to address appeals for reforms ahead of polls widely expected to be called this year following a mass rally last July against alleged electoral fraud and irregularities.

A key demand is that the estimated one million Malaysians abroad are allowed to vote. Currently only government employees, army personnel and full-time students can vote overseas.

But on Friday, the Kuala Lumpur High Court dismissed an application by six Malaysians living overseas, ruling the Election Commission was following the rules in not allowing them to cast their ballots abroad, said Detta Samen of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia.

The six had wanted the court to compel the commission to register them as absent voters and amend its regulation within two weeks to allow all Malaysians to vote overseas.

Samen, who was in court for the verdict, said Malaysians abroad should have the option to vote.

"Every Malaysian citizen should be given the right to vote," he told AFP. "(Else) the element of discrimination is there."

Last month parliament adopted recommendations by a bipartisan panel for poll reforms, which Najib set up following the mass rally.

The panel's recommendations include allowing overseas voting, using indelible ink and cleaning up the electoral roll to remove deceased voters to reduce the risk of cheating.

Activists and opposition politicians claim elections are unfair and marred by fraud, enabling Najib's Barisan Nasional coalition to stay in power for more than five decades

Election Commission deputy chairman Wan Ahmad Wan Omar said last month that the agency was open to changing the rules but that allowing Malaysians abroad to vote could be costly and difficult since only 25,000 Malaysians abroad have registered.

The July rally saw thousands of Malaysians march through the capital Kuala Lumpur in a rare showing of discontent. Police broke up the protest with tear gas and water cannon and arrested 1,600 people.

Malaysia police give rare nod for Anwar court rally

KUALA LUMPUR, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Malaysian police said Friday they would allow a rally for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to take place when the court delivers a verdict in his sodomy trial at the start of next week.

The move is seen as a rare concession in the Southeast Asian country where public protests are usually quashed.

Anwar's party has said they are planning to gather 100,000 people outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court Monday to support their leader, who was charged in 2008 with sodomising a young male former aide.

Anwar faces up to 20 years in jail if the court finds him guilty. The 64-year-old has denied the sodomy charge as politically motivated to end his ambitions to take over the government.

Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohmad Salleh told AFP that he met Anwar's colleagues Friday and would allow them to go ahead with the rally, reversing authorities' earlier stand that supporters should not gather at the court.

"We are going to monitor the situation to make sure that is a very orderly assembly," he said, adding police would intervene if the gathering got out of hand. "Hopefully it doesn't happen," he said.

Azmin Ali, deputy president of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, said the police permission was a first. In the past, police have refused to permit opposition rallies and broken them up with tear gas, water canon and mass arrests.

"We had a good meeting today... It's a good beginning," Azmin told AFP. "I assured (police authorities) that based on our past experience we would be able to manage the crowd provided there is no provocation from any irresponsible parties."

He said 500 opposition members would be deployed to make sure the gathering is peaceful. Anwar is currently on a countrywide tour to declare his innocence and gather support.

The trial marks the second time in a decade that Anwar is facing sodomy accusations, which he has vehemently denied as government plots to smear his image in this conservative Muslim-majority country.

The most recent charge emerged months after his opposition coalition made unprecedented gains during 2008 general elections though still failing to unseat the five-decade-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

In 1998, Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was convicted on charges of sodomy and corruption after a fallout with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. He spent six years in prison before the sodomy conviction was overturned and he was freed.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, trying to shore up support ahead of elections expected for this year, has said he will grant more civil liberties, including guaranteeing the right to gather peacefully.

But critics say a new law, passed by parliament late last year, does the opposite as it outrightly bans street rallies. Police have also continued to break up protests, recently arresting 17 people during a student protest.

As US pivots to Asia, Britain warns not to forget Russia

WASHINGTON, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - As the United States pivots its military might toward Asia, Washington and its allies should not forget that Russia remains an unpredictable global player, Britain's defense minister cautioned Thursday.

Calling it "perhaps the single most important strategic challenge" facing Europe, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond voiced concern about Russia shortly before President Barack Obama announced a major realignment of US strategy.

Driven by plans for a $487 billion cut in American defense spending over the next decade, the new strategy will cut back US ground forces and shift military resources to meet a rising China, continuing a trend of de-emphasizing Europe.

"If the US is going to see its focus drawn increasingly to the Asia Pacific region, how does it secure the backyard?" Hammond asked an audience at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

"How does it ensure that Russia is locked into a system of global governance and collaboration, which means we can coexist peacefully and resolve our differences through structures that do not lead to conflict?

"I am not sure we have an answer to that yet," he said. "That is going to be one of the big challenges: how that relationship is managed forward."

Despite Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia after its brief war with Georgia in 2008, they have remained rocky, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatening to boycott a May NATO summit in Chicago over US missile defense plans.

Hammond said it was not known whether the differences over missile defenses were insurmountable or whether Putin would go through with his threat to stay away from Chicago.

Political discontent in Russia also has sharpened the tensions, with Putin recently accusing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating mass protests against the outcome of last month's Russian parliamentary elections.

"We should not forget that although the threat of Soviet Communism has passed, Russia as a nation still exists," Hammond said. "It is still an important global player, the intentions of which are not entirely clear or predictable at this stage."

"Certainly some of our NATO allies, the Baltic states, would urge us not to take our eye off of that potential set of future challenges as we reconfigure our security and defense posture to deal with challenges we are immediately facing," he said.

The US strategy review hints at reducing the military's footprint in Europe, without offering any details. "In keeping with this evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve," it said.

Hammond, who has been defense secretary for only about 10 weeks, acknowledged that sharply reduced defense budgets, both in the United States and Europe, are a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

He said the Europeans should respond to the prospects of large-scale US cuts, including the possibility of troop reductions in Europe, "in a mature way, not in a histrionic way."

"We need to understand why the United States needs to do what it is doing, and we need to make the case... for continuing the Atlantic Alliance even while recognizing that some of the new strategic challenges are elsewhere in the world," Hammond said.

At the same time, he observed that the biggest security challenges over the past decade have come from "failing states, chaotic sub-regions."

"And the truth is most of those failing states, potential failing states, chaotic sub-regions are in our backyard, not yours. But they threaten you at least as much as they threaten us."

The United States found after invading Iraq in 2003 that it had insufficient troops for the drawn out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new strategy said US forces will no longer be sized for prolonged, counter-insurgency warfare.

Whistleblower to give up Olympus management bid

TOKYO, January  6, 2012 (AFP) - Michael Woodford, the whistle-blowing former chief executive of Olympus, said Friday he would abandon his bid to take over the helm of the scandal-hit Japanese precision equipment maker.

Woodford had decided he "will today withdraw from any further action to form an alternative slate of directors," he said in a statement, citing personal issues and the absence of support from Japanese institutional shareholders.

He is to hold a news conference at 0600 GMT.

Shares in Olympus were down 3.68 percent at 993 yen in opening trade.

Woodford, the company's first ever non-Japanese president and chief executive at the 92-year-old company, was stripped of the top posts in October.

He said he was sacked because he alleged overpayments in acquisition deals in recent years and raised doubts over the firm's corporate governance.

Olympus later admitted the deals had been used to cover up huge investment losses dating back to the 1990s and a report from a third-party investigation panel slammed its top management as "rotten".

Woodford had earlier said one effective option for getting a new management team would be a proxy battle at a general shareholders' meeting -- in which like-minded shareholders join forces to remove the board.

But he could not win support from Japanese investors.

"The major reason for the continuing uncertainty is that despite my having done the right thing, none of the major Japanese institutional shareholders have offered one word of support to me and conversely have in effect allowed the tainted and contaminated board to continue in office," he said.

"The fact that such a situation can exist despite the explicit findings of the third-party committee is depressing and totally disorientating to those looking in on Japan from the outside."

Woodford also said his fight made his family suffer.

"It's been a frightening period for my wife, who has suffered a lot and every night still wakes screaming in a trance and it takes several minutes to calm her.

"She finds the uncertainty and hostility of the public fight difficult to cope with and I have therefore decided for her emotional well-being that I cannot put her through any more anguish, and will today withdraw from any further action to form an alternative slate of directors," he said.

IMF stress-tests Japanese banks

WASHINGTON, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - The International Monetary Fund said Thursday it is performing stress tests on Japanese banks to measure their vulnerability to systemic shocks.

An IMF spokeswoman said the tests were part of a broader review of the Japanese financial sector, aimed at assessing stability and supervision and the impact of new global regulations.

But they also come after the IMF noted a possible weakness in the banks through their huge holdings of Japanese government bonds.

The worries focus on the risk of large losses for the banks if markets lose their appetite for JGBs, given the government's already massive debt burden.

"A JGB bond shock, particularly if accompanied by an equity-price drop, would imply large capital losses for the principal creditors, which are Japanese banks and pension funds," the IMF said in a report to the Group of 20 major economies in November.

Obama vows US 'military superiority' despite cuts

WASHINGTON, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - President Barack Obama vowed Thursday the US military would maintain its "superiority" and bolster its presence in Asia despite planned cuts to the defense budget.

"So, yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know -- the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats," Obama told reporters at the Pentagon.

Unveiling a revised military strategy designed to reflect a more austere era, Obama said the plan called for increasing the American presence in the Pacific while moving away from large ground wars against insurgents.

"We'll be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region," said Obama, in an unusual appearance in the Pentagon's briefing room.

"As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the end of long-term, nation-building with large military footprints -- we'll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces," Obama said.

The strategy review is supposed to shape Pentagon budget priorities as Obama's administration prepares for $487 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years.

In a politically charged election year, White House officials stressed Obama was deeply involved in the strategy review and sought to portray the president as taking a responsible approach to defense spending informed by the advice of commanders.


Finland charges captain of ship with Patriot missiles

HELSINKI, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - Finnish prosecutors filed negligence charges Thursday against the Ukrainian captain of a merchant ship found to have 69 Patriot missiles aboard, but lifted a travel ban on him and the first mate.

The charges relate to the improper loading of nearly 150 tons of explosives found aboard the vessel along with the missiles, and which officials said "posed a danger" to those on board.

The first mate, also Ukrainian, will be charged for his role in overseeing and approving the improper loading of the cargo.

"The charges mean that they have been summoned and may appear in court or be represented by an attorney... The case would most likely be heard in June," state prosecutor Juha-Mikko Haemaelaeinen told AFP.

The British-registered Thor Liberty has been at the southeastern Finnish port of Kotka since December 15, when the US-made surface-to-air missiles were found on board without the proper authorisation required to transit through Finnish territory.

The vessel was also found to be carrying 150 tons of nitroguanidine packed in cardboard boxes, rather than shipping containers.

Finnish officials launched an investigation into possible illegal transit of defence materiel, though a German defence ministry spokesman said soon afterwards that the missiles came from the German military and were destined for South Korea.

The spokesman 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 defence ministry official said Finland had not received a transit licence application for the missiles from Germany.
On Wednesday, the Finnish government approved the missiles' transit through Finnish territory to Seoul's Defence Acquisition Program Administration.

Finnish customs said Thursday they were nonetheless continuing their probe into the missiles.

"We will continue the investigation to try to find out what really happened, and whether anyone was negligent," the head of the Finnish customs anti-crime unit, Petri Lounatmaa, told AFP.

The removal of the travel ban and the granting of the transit permit clear the way for the ship to leave with the missiles on board.

It was not immediately known when the ship would depart. Finnish officials impounded the missiles during the investigation, and they will have to be reloaded on to the ship before it can depart.

Warren Buffett to sing on Chinese web gala: report

BEIJING, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - US billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett is scheduled to sing and play guitar in a Chinese gala broadcast on the Internet to mark the upcoming Lunar New Year of the Dragon, state press said Thursday.

The 81-year-old investment guru known as the "Oracle of Omaha" has already videotaped his performance, which is to be aired on the website of China's state television CCTV from January 23, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"We all know that Buffett is good at investment, but few knew he also did well in singing," the report quoted Wang Pingjiu, a production executive for the so-called Spring Festival Web Gala, as saying.

Wang refused to name the song that Buffett -- who holds a stake of nearly 10 percent in Chinese auto group BYD -- will perform. It is unclear where his performance was recorded.

The gala will be broadcast on CNTV.cn, and will also feature Hong Kong film and kung fu star Jackie Chan, the report said.

A condensed version of the show -- timed to mark the Chinese New Year, which falls on January 23 -- will also be aired on state television, it added.

CCTV refused to comment on the Buffett performance when contacted by AFP.

The philanthropist, who has pledged to give most of his fortune away to charity, is no stranger to China.

In September 2010, he and fellow billionaire Bill Gates triggered huge media hype when they hosted a banquet in Beijing for China's super-rich to discuss charitable giving.

The banquet prompted a huge debate about philanthropy in China, the world's second-largest economy, which had 146 dollar billionaires last year, second only to the United States' 413, according to Forbes magazine.

Buffett has long been seen as a model investor by China's growing legions of rich, many of whom hope to emulate the investment guru's feats as the nation's economy grows.

China's space ambitions ally glory with pragmatism

BEIJING, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - As China pushes to become a global space power, experts say its ambitions go well beyond a symbolic moon landing, to satellite observation and a global positioning system to rival that of the United States.

The Asian powerhouse laid out its five-year plan for space exploration last week, outlining ambitious plans at a time when the United States -- historically at the forefront of the field -- has grounded its space shuttle fleet.

Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a space expert at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, said it was widely acknowledged that "what matters to China is the role it will play as a major power."

China marked a key success in November last year when it completed its first docking in orbit high above Earth, a crucial step towards fulfilling its ambition to set up a manned space station by 2020.

In 2003, it became the third country in the world to send humans into space after Russia and America, and it is now looking into sending astronauts to the moon, although nothing has been set in stone.

The white paper issued last Thursday -- the third to have been published since 2000 -- said China "will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing."

Australia-based expert Morris Jones said the logo of the China Lunar Exploration Program, which operates robotic missions to the Moon, had a human footprint at its centre, providing a "useful clue about their long-term plans."

But Beijing is not content with playing catch-up on manned flights, and is also looking to reap economic and scientific benefits from space.

By 2016, China will "increase the use of satellites to contribute to the development of strategic industries and satisfy the needs of the economy" in telecommunications, Earth observation or global positioning systems, the white paper said.

China last year launched its version of the US Global Positioning System (GPS), the Beidou satellite navigation system. Further satellites will enable the new system to cover Asia this year, and the whole world by 2020.

Sourbes-Verger said China's ambitions in Earth observation -- an expertise that has both civilian and military applications -- were well ahead of anything currently planned by Europe.

The white paper outlined ambitions for "24-hour continuous, high-resolution surveillance of the Earth," she said, adding that the plan, if realised, would put China almost on a level with the United States in this field.

China has long maintained the rapid development of its space capabilities is peaceful in nature, and the white paper reiterated this, saying Beijing "opposes weaponisation or any arms race in outer space."

But concerns remain over China's intentions. In 2009, air force commander General Xu Qiliang caused a stir when he said armed forces should prepare for the "inevitable" militarisation of outer space -- a claim hastily disavowed by President Hu Jintao.

Jones noted that China had tested anti-satellite weapons by blowing up one of its own in 2007. "No nation that has a respectable major space programme has an entirely peaceful programme," he said.

"The world over, space technologies are used for military communications and to deploy spy satellites. China's no different."

The white paper also outlined plans to equip China's next-generation rockets with the ability to carry heavier cargoes.

The Long March-5 rocket being developed will be able to place 25-tonne payloads into near-Earth orbit -- more than the 20 tonnes Europe's Ariane 5 rocket can carry.

But the payload is still a lot lighter than what Saturn V -- a rocket used by the United States from 1967 to 1973 that transported the Apollo missions to the moon -- was able to carry.

"Now we need vehicles with a greater capability to send more payloads into space," Hu Haifeng, designer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation -- a contractor for the Chinese space programme -- was quoted as saying by the official Global Times.

103 journalists killed in 2011, Mexico deadliest place: IPI

VIENNA, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - A total 103 journalists were killed in 2011, with Mexico the most dangerous place to work for the media, Vienna-based press watchdog IPI said Thursday.

This was the second highest toll on record after 2009, when 110 journalists were killed while covering a story.

"The numbers are getting worse," the International Press Institute said in a statement, noting that 55 journalists were killed in 2001.

"In 2002, 19 countries appeared on the IPI Death Watch list. In 2011, there were 40 -- more than in any year of the past decade."

With 10 journalists killed there in the past year, Mexico was the deadliest country for the media to work, IPI said.

Iraq came second with nine deaths -- mostly from bombings -- followed by Honduras, Pakistan and Yemen, each with six deaths, and Libya and Brazil with five deaths.

In North Africa and the Middle East, journalists were mostly killed during the Arab Spring uprisings.

In sub-Saharan Africa, in Russia and in several cases in Pakistan, the reporters were victims of targeted killings, IPI said.

"Almost all of the journalists killed in 2011 were local reporters and cameramen covering local conflicts, corruption and other illegal activities, it said.

"Tragically, the likelihood that the perpetrators will be brought to justice is close to zero. Impunity is fuelling the murders."

IPI also noted a "trend of increasing violence against journalists in the Western hemisphere" and called on governments to respect the media's right to work freely.

Aside from targeted killings, the IPI Death Watch list includes journalists killed in natural disasters, plane crashes and attacks while covering a story.

In its own tally for 2011, Reporters without Borders counted 66 journalists' deaths.

Drought shrinks China's largest freshwater lake

BEIJING, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - China's largest freshwater lake has shrunk to its smallest size in years due to drought, state media and officials said Thursday, endangering the ecology in the area and fishermen's livelihoods.

After a dry spell of more than a decade, Poyang Lake in east China's Jiangxi province is drying up fast as scant rainfall has sent water levels in the Gan River -- which feeds the lake -- to record lows, the Xinhua news agency said.

The lake's area was 183 square kilometres (73 square miles) Thursday, an official at the local hydrological bureau told AFP -- nearly half the average of 344 square kilometres recorded each year on this day since 1951.

"This year's level is very low," the official said, asking not to be named, adding there had been 65 percent less rainfall in the area since December compared to the average recorded at the same period over the past 60 years.

As large as 4,500 square kilometres when at full capacity -- more than six times the size of Singapore -- the lake is home to the migrating Siberian crane in winter and to a rare finless porpoise all year round.

The long drought has left many of the lake's 10,000 fishing boats stranded in shallow waters.

China is regularly affected by crippling dry spells. Last spring, authorities said a drought along the Yangtze river had affected more than 34 million people, leaving livestock without water and parching a major grain belt.

In December, Outlook -- an official Xinhua news agency weekly -- quoted the Yangtze Water Resources Commission as predicting an ongoing drought in the lake area and warning of a threat to the local ecology and economic development.

Citing local officials, the report said low water levels and a fishing ban in March and April implemented in 2002 had reduced the fishing season to three months a year, threatening local fishermen's livelihoods.

The annual per capita income of fishermen in Poyang Lake fell to 1,000 yuan ($160) in 2011 from as much as 4,000 yuan in previous years, state media has said.

Meanwhile, dwindling fish stocks will also affect the lake's half-a-million migratory birds, which will lose their source of food, Xinhua said.
Authorities plan to try and resolve the problem by putting 165 million fry into the lake, it added.

US wants China to urge restraint on new N. Korea leaders

SEOUL, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - The United States has urged China to stress the need for restraint to its North Korean allies as Pyongyang undergoes a leadership transition, a senior US diplomat said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who arrived in South Korea from talks in China, said he asked Beijing to consult closely with Washington on developments in the North.

"We also urge China to make clear the importance of restraint by the new North Korean leadership," Campbell told reporters after talks with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan and other officials.

The US also "stressed that North Korea should take steps to improve relations with the ROK (South Korea) and to abide by its international obligations and commitments", he said.

China's trade surplus shrinks in 2011

SHANGHAI, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - China's trade surplus narrowed 12.6 percent to around $160 billion in 2011, the commerce minister said Thursday, as the world's number two economy was hit by weaker demand from key export markets.

The drop from a 2010 trade surplus of $183 billion came after a year of economic turmoil that has seen a rebound in the United States and Europe slow down sharply.

Commerce Minister Chen Deming said total trade volume -- imports and exports combined -- rose more 20 percent to $3.6 trillion last year, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, which gave no breakdown.

Analysts said the shrinking surplus in 2011 from 2010 was in line with expectations as export growth clearly slowed.

"It was no surprise to see the surplus narrowing," Zuo Xiaolei, chief economist at Galaxy Securities in Beijing, told AFP.

"The external environment is the reason for export growth slowing down, but we should see a more significant increase in import growth," she said.

China's export growth fell from 31 percent in 2010 to an annual rate of 21 percent in the January-November period of 2011. The trade surplus was $138.4 billion in the first 11 has become a political hot topic as the United States and other countries claim Beijing keeps its yuan currency artificially low to boost exports.

US officials have long accused China of deliberately pursuing a weak currency, fuelling a flow of cheap exports that helped send the US trade deficit with China to more than $270 billion in 2010.

Chinese leaders have pledged to boost domestic demand to counter weakening overseas demand for its exports, a key driver of the country's economy.

Chen said last month China would move to "stabilise" its exports in 2012.

A Chinese government researcher also said last month that export growth would slow sharply this year, which could drag gross domestic product expansion below nine percent for the first time in more than a decade.

In a bid to boost growth and counter the slowdowns in Europe and the United States, authorities in December cut the amount of money banks must hold in reserve for the first time in three years.

The US Treasury said last month that China's yuan is still significantly undervalued, although it refrained from saying it manipulates the currency, which could lead to retaliatory action by Congress.

China defends its exchange rate regime, saying it is moving gradually to make the yuan more flexible.

He Maochun, a professor at Tsinghua University, said expanding imports would help reduce friction with trading partners, though he forecast China's overall trade balance would remain in surplus.

"China should keep expanding imports and maintaining exports. Not only will it help us build a sustainable economy at home, but also help reduce China's trade frictions aboard," he told AFP.

China's foreign trade volume was forecast to grow at an annual rate of 10 percent to reach $4.8 trillion by 2015, the commerce ministry said Wednesday as it issued development goals for the next four years.

Japan plans futuristic farm in disaster zone

TOKYO, January  5, 2012 (AFP) - Japan is planning a futuristic farm where robots do the lifting in an experimental project on land swamped by the March tsunami, the government said Thursday.

Under an agriculture ministry plan, unmanned tractors will work fields where pesticides will have been replaced by LEDs keeping rice, wheat, soybeans, fruit and vegetables safe until robots can put them in boxes.

Carbon dioxide produced by machinery working on the up to 250-hectare (600 acre) site will be channeled back to crops to boost their growth and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers, the Nikkei newspaper said.

The agricultural ministry will begin on-site research later this year with a plan to spend around four billion yen ($52 million) over the next six years, a ministry official said.

Land in Miyagi prefecture, some 300 kilometres (200 miles) north of Tokyo, which was flooded by seawater on March 11, has been earmarked for the so-called "Dream Project".

The tsunami, sparked by a 9.0-magnitude quake, inundated the country's northeast, killing more than 19,000 people, according to the latest figures.

It also badly polluted the land, leaving it laden with salt and depositing oil on fields, with around 24,000 hectares of once-fertile farmland damaged by the tsunami, earthquake and fallout from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

Meltdowns at reactors at the plant sent radiation into the air, sea and food chain, badly denting public trust in local produce.

The atomic disaster and the ravaging of farmland were the latest blows to a struggling and ageing farm industry that is also facing the threat of renewed competition from abroad as Tokyo eyes a Pacific-wide free trade pact.

High-tech companies such as Panasonic are to be invited to get involved in the project in a bid to give a much-needed boost to the beleaguered sector, the ministry spokesman said.

"We hope the project will help not only support farmers in the disaster-hit regions but also revive the entire nation's agriculture," he said.

Among other companies expected to join the project are Fujitsu, Hitachi, Sharp, NEC, Yanmar, Ajinomoto and Ito-Yokado Co., according to the Nikkei business daily.

The paper said total investment, including funds from the private sector, would be around 10 billion yen.

Management of the land during the six-year project is expected to be entrusted to local farming corporations and production will begin once salt has been removed from the soil, the Nikkei said.

Once the six-year lease period is finished, the government plans to urge local farmers to consolidate their farmland under the farming corporations, the paper added.

French mail order catalogue's naked man goes viral

PARIS, January  4, 2012 (AFP) - One of France's best-known mail order catalogues apologised Wednesday after web users noticed a naked man in the background of an advertising photo published on the children's section of its website.

The photo of four young children with their arms around each other running on the beach while a naked man walked serenely through the sea behind them was removed from the site but has since gone viral on the Internet.

"La Redoute has withdrawn the photo in question from its website, it has posted apologies on Facebook and Twitter," an unnamed spokeswoman told AFP.

"An internal enquiry has also been opened to determine how the error happened," she said.

A message on La Redoute's Facebook page said the company "apologises for the photo published on its site and is doing what's necessary to remove it".

"We're aware that this may have offended some web users," La Redoute said, promising to "reinforce the validation process for all marketing so that this does not happen again".

Comments on La Redoute's Facebook page ranged from "to err is human" to accusations of "a marketing coup by La Redoute's web team ahead of the winter sales".

Web users meanwhile used the site's magnifying glass function to extract a high-resolution image of the unknown man and paste it into a variety of inventive collages now doing the rounds on the Internet.

The naked man can be seen alongside a holidaying President Nicolas Sarkozy, behind the first men on the Moon, fighting Darth Vader or wearing the face of scandal-hit former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

La Redoute has a reputation for being web-savvy. However, it has been the target of Internet mockery before after selling a kids' T-shirt emblazoned with the incorrectly spelled "Enjoy HolyDays".

Israelis, Palestinians downbeat about peace prospects

JERUSALEM, January  4, 2012 (AFP) - Israelis and Palestinians were downbeat about peace prospects on Wednesday, a day after the two sides held their first face-to-face talks since September 2010 at a meeting in Amman.

"It's difficult to be optimistic because (Palestinian president Mahmud) Abbas continues to insist that Israel must commit to the 1967 lines and a settlement freeze, failing which he threatens tough measures," Israeli lawmaker Benny Begin told public radio.

"Abu Mazen must say clearly that he is ready for concessions and arrangements," said Begin, using Abbas's nom-de-guerre.

"It is very difficult to be optimistic when you know that he insists he will not recognise Israel as a Jewish state," added Begin, a minister without portfolio.

Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghuti said in a letter from his prison cell that "the peace process has failed; it's finished. It's not worth desperately trying to resuscitate a corpse."

"Consider 2012 as the year of massive peaceful popular resistance against colonialism, aggression, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, the blockade and roadblocks," Barghuti, who is serving several life terms for anti-Israeli attacks, was quoted by the Palestinian press as saying.

Mahmud al-Aloul, a leader of Abbas's Fatah movement, delivered the same message at a rally in Ramallah.

"The Israelis have dashed our hopes and those of the Jordanians by coming with empty hands, without new ideas and unready for a solution," he said.

Tuesday's talks were the first direct discussions between the two sides for more than 15 months, and were hailed as "positive," though no breakthrough emerged.

They come as the Middle East peace Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- try to kick start negotiations that ground to a halt shortly after they began in September 2010 over the issue of settlement construction.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said in a statement on Wednesday that more meetings were expected to follow Tuesday's talks during January.

But he reiterated the Palestinian position that negotiations could not resume without a freeze on settlement construction and a framework for talks based on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

He urged the Israeli government "to announce a settlement freeze, including in east Jerusalem, and accept the principle of a two-state solution on the 1967 borders, to give Jordan's efforts to resume negotiations the chance they deserve."

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister and one of the initiators of the Oslo peace accords, told Israeli public radio that he was pessimistic.

"The discussions being embarked upon are in vain and doomed to failure," he said.

"The two parties may indeed continue to meet, but they don't have the slightest chance of reaching even a minimum agreement," he added.

"The Quartet must change direction and propose an interim agreement on the borders."

None of Israel's Hebrew-language papers even reported the talks on their front pages.

"The Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and the Quartet all expressed such low expectations that they were able to conclude that it was a 'good and useful meeting'," the left-leaning Haaretz said in a sardonic editorial

The militant Palestinian Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, slammed Abbas's negotiators for not submitting their policies to movements outside Fatah.

"They represent only their authors and in no way the Palestinian people," it said.