Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vigilantes on streets as Egypt unrest grows

Vigilantes have taken to the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo as the country descends further into chaos. Police are said to have completely disappeared and while a military presence remains most units have been deployed to protect key government buildings.

Looting has been widespread across the capital and many people have armed themselves with knives, sticks and clubs in order to protect their property. Some of the vigilantes have also set up road blocks, stopping vehicles to check for stolen items. BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen, speaking on the World Service, said the country was "sliding into anarchy" and that there appeared to be no end in sight to the unrest.

President Hosni Mubarak has refused to give in to the protesters demands to resign and remains in office. As he maintained his grip on power he sacked his entire cabinet and appointed Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq to the post of prime minister.

But the change in government has failed to appease the crowds. "Our people say to Mubarak: Mubarak, get out, get out and get away! We want to change you. We don't want new ministers. We want a new president," one demonstrator told the BBC.

Tanks and troops were last night seen deployed around Cairo's central Tahrir (Liberation) Square which was once again filled with protesters well into the night. However there was none of the bloodshed seen in previous days.

Clashes between the protesters and the riot police have left at least 74 people dead since rallies began on Tuesday, though some reports suggest the death toll could be much higher. In addition, around 2,000 people have been injured.

Some correspondents have suggested that the pull back by the police and military may be due to outside pressure. Writing on the BBC website, International Correspondent John Simpson said, "In spite of the turmoil, one or two things are becoming clearer here. It looks pretty likely that President Mubarak and his military leaders have been told in no uncertain fashion by the Americans that the Tiananmen Square option, by which the authorities restore order by shooting the protesters down by the hundred, is simply not acceptable."

There has certainly been strong condemnation of the blacking out of Egypt's Internet and mobile telecommunications network with President Barack Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs calling for the restrictions to be lifted immediately.

Many of Egypt's citizens were still managing to connect to the outside world though a series of low-tech initiatives however. Some were using dial-up connections to ISPs outside the country, though for many people this is difficult as few have an international calling service [WSJ].

Yesterday a small French ISP, NDF opened up a dial-up line to allow access to anyone with a modem [FDN blog - French]. Anyone in Egypt with an analogue phone line capable of phoning France could connect to the network by the following number: +33 1 72 89 01 50 . (Login: foo password: foo).

Some people have published comprehensive guides on how to use the mobile phone network to connect to international dial-up Internet providers. One couple wrote details on their blog, though the irony is that without access to the Internet in the first place such instructions were unlikely to prove useful to many.

But the inaccessibility of the Internet has not stopped people's resourcefulness. One self styled group of "net activists" have built a website of information resources on We Rebuild.

Those that have managed to connect to the web continue to tweet ongoing developments in the city. Some messages spoke of those still having access to the Internet of dropping their WEP encryption, making their WiFi access points freely available to all.

However, while there are many signs of solidarity, there has also been an ugly side to the disturbances. Security forces have been brutal in the cracking down on protesters. As well as the shooting of some, others have been severely beaten and there are calls for blood donations to aid the many hundreds injured. Journalists have also been targeted. A BBC correspondent was beaten on Friday and a cameraman working for CNN was also attacked.

Many of those protesting have resorted to wanton destruction too. There has been widespread looting and in one incident Cairo's museum was broken into and several exhibits were damaged.

"They were able, these two people to enter the Cairo museum from the top and they destroyed two mummies and they opened one case," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Some reports say the mummies were beheaded while others suggest they had been completely destroyed [LA Times / NPR / MSNBC].

Pictures on Al Jazeera [YouTube] showed many exhibits, some dating back more than 4000 years, had been wrecked or stolen. Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist at Oxford University in England, matched up shots of the damage with pictures of artifacts from Tut's tomb and said that three gilded wooden statuettes of the boy-king may have been broken off their pedestals []. While the damage is significant, it could have been much worse. Some citizens had tried to protect the museum before the military eventually arrived and the famous gold mask of Tutankhamun is said to be undamaged.

The unrest in Egypt follows an uprising in Tunisia in early January which toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. The Tunisian upheaval began with anger over rising food prices, high unemployment and anger at official corruption. Similar issues have created resentment amongst Egypt's citizens prompting the recent protests.

Dubbed 'the Pharaoh' for his 30-year iron rule, President Hosni Mubarak is said to have amassed a fortune of £25 billion [$40 billion] for his family. Mubarak, 82, his half-Welsh wife Suzanne and sons Gamal and Alaa are seen in Egypt as symbols of nepotism and corruption with properties and business interests worldwide, including London. As Mubarak sought retreat at his home in Sharm el Sheikh there were reports that his two sons had fled to London [BNO].

The turmoil in Egypt is also worrying leaders in others despots and dictatorships. In China for instance, Sina Weibo, the biggest Twitter clone in China has banned searches for the word Egypt [埃及]. Attempts to search for the country returned the message: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown". The block is only in Chinese however and some users are circumventing the ban by writing their messages in English [AFP / CBS / Penn Olson].

While the Chinese state news agency has reported on the ongoing unrest there was only scant mention of the Internet restrictions imposed in the last few days [Xinhua]. China heavily censors the Internet and many social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are blocked by authorities.

China is a loyal supporter of the Mubarak regime. On 28th of January, when commenting on the political situation in Egypt, the spokesperson from the Chinese foreign ministry stated that the Chinese government would continue to support the Egyptian government in maintaining social stability and oppose any foreign intervention in Egypt [Sohu - Chinese]. But as the unrest has grown Chinese language websites have played down the reporting [Global Voices Online].

As for Egypt itself, the situation remains volatile and there looks to be no swift resolution, at least in the minds of the protesters.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt cuts off the Internet amid unrest

Egypt has cut off the Internet from its citizens following growing unrest in the country. There has been a wave of unprecedented protests in the country, much of it coordinated through social networks.

But the Hosni Mubarack led government has attempted to quell the rising anger directed at his administration by cutting Egypt off from the outside world. It has effectively left the Internet unreachable for the vast majority of people in the country.

According to Internet monitoring firm Renesys, virtually all routes to Egyptian networks were simultaneously withdrawn from the Internet's global routing table shortly before 23:00 GMT on 27 January.

Other web traffic monitoring services, including Arbor Networks and BGP Mon, also saw a drop off in activity. "The government seems to be taking a shotgun approach by ordering ISP's to stop routing all networks," said Andree Toonk, a researcher at BGP Mon.

It not only meant that citizens could not access foreign websites, but that the outside world could not access many Egyptian Internet addresses.

Egyptian authorities are also reported to have stunted net access by shutting down official Domain Name Servers (DNS) in Egypt. These act as address books and are consulted by web browsing software to find out the location of a site a user wants to visit.

Messages circulating in Egypt pointed people towards unofficial DNS servers so they could get back online. @EgyptFreedomNow claimed it was still possible for Egyptians to access the internet using dial up connections.

The disconnections were not only limited to the Internet however. There are also reports that cell-phone coverage has been disrupted.

A statement issued by Vodafone Egypt said it had been instructed to suspend services in some areas. "Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it," it said.

The countries four main ISPs, Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr were all reported off the air late Friday. The complete severing of the country's Internet comes a few days after some Egyptians had reported being unable to access social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

At the time the Egyptian government denied it was behind the block, saying it supported free speech. Many of the protesters were able to get round those restrictions by using smartphone apps. Others used proxy servers and VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] to circumvent the restrictions.

But with the cutting off of all Internet traffic and mobile services even these methods fail.

The protests in Egypt followed similar unrest in Tunisia, which saw the collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's government. Amid fears of a domino effect in the Middle East, other regimes are following Egypt's lead in restricting access to some sites. The Syrian authorities have banned certain programmes that allows access to Facebook's Chat application.

Several countries have voiced their concern over the Internet restrictions. Robert Gibbs, the US press secretary tweeted a message last night airing his consternation over the blocks. "Very concerned about violence in Egypt - government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet," Gibbs said on his Twitter stream.

Speaking later to reporters at the White House, Gibbs said, "We believe the basket of individual freedoms includes the freedom to access the Internet and the freedom to use social networking sites. We believe that the people of Egypt have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and that includes the use of the Internet."

Representatives from Facebook and Twitter also spoke out. "The Internet provides people around the world with the power to connect, to learn, and to share," Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement. "A world without the Internet is unimaginable," Noyes said. "Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community, it is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet."

A statement released from the micro-blogging website Twitter said, "We believe that the open exchange of info & views benefits societies & helps governments better connect with their people."

French-based Reporters Without Borders condemned the black-out. "By blocking the Internet and by attacking and arresting Egyptian and foreign journalists, the Egyptian government is trying both to prevent the protests from being organized and to prevent them from being covered internationally," RSF secretary-general Jean-Francois Julliard said [BBC / AFP / WSJ]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The mystery of Huangyangtan

Deep inside China is an unusual man-made terrain of  what appears to an exact scale replica of China's disputed border region with India, a piece of land that led the countries into war in 1962 and which remains, to this day, in dispute.

"It's one of the most interesting things anyone's ever observed anywhere," says Tim Brown, a specialist in satellite imagery and a senior fellow at "It's obviously of the disputed border. It's oriented exactly."

It was initially discovered by a German who goes by the name KenGrok who had stumbled across the mysterious military facility in 2006. Speculation as to why it had been constructed quickly grew. According to one report in the Sydney Morning Herald, local authorities claimed the terrain as a tank training facility used for "putting tanks and their drivers through their paces."

But military specialists in the United States give this little credence. "Tanks aren't going to be driving through that," said Brown, who added that the facility is roughly 1:500 in scale. "That's guys walking along, looking at it -- it's just too small [for tanks]."

Taylor Fravel, an assistant professor of political science at MIT and part of its security studies program, agreed. "I'm sure it's not for armored training. It has multiple uses, some of which are not hostile."

"It's just sensible military planning," said John Pike, director and founder of "There are all kinds of things that would be peculiar about that type of terrain, and it would be enormously annoying to have to go out to the mountains. Better to bring the mountains to them."

"Militaries love terrain models," Brown concurred. "The Japanese had one before Pearl Harbor ... [and the Chinese] have full-scale airfields, oriented like Taiwanese airfields."

It it not known how long the facility, which lies some 900 km to the west of China's capital Beijing in a sparsely populated area in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, has been in existence. But many experts do not see it as an ominous sign that China intends to attack India. "China's view toward territorial disputes is diplomacy," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The existance of these scenarios is standard operating procedure," said Fravel. "[The border dispute] is not settled, but it's in a peaceful phase."

According to Noah Shachtman, editor of Defense Tech, the most important lesson to be taken from the discovery is how geo-spacial information is changing the way that people look at the world. "Average folks are finding really surprising things on Google Earth because it's accessible to the average Web surfer," Shachtman said. "It's closer to curiosity than military advantage." [ABC]

China has many areas along its borders, as well as several islands which remain under dispute. Many such disputes have a history stretching back many years and while some are well known others have faded from public consciousness.

Last year there were ugly scenes after Chinese fishermen were taken captive by the Japanese in waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, referred to by China as the Daioyu Islands.

Tensions still exist between Taiwan and China despite a building of better trade ties. China maintains that Taiwan is a part of its sovereign territory, though there are strong political factions on the island that seek total independence.

Issues surrounding the legitimacy over China's claim to Tibet and Xinjiang still create strong feelings, though China remains firmly in control across these regions. But as some have observed, China tends to play a waiting game and err towards diplomacy rather than force in order to achieve its goal of reclaiming territory.

In fact only recently China saw a small region of disputed land returned after more than 100 years. Tajikistan's parliament voted in agreement on Wednesday 12th January to hand over 1,000 square kilometres of land in the Central Asian nation's sparsely populated Pamir Mountains region. The dispute dates to the 19th Century, when Tajikistan was part of Czarist Russia.

There was no immediate information on how many people live in the territory to be ceded, though the decision was hailed as a victory by Foreign Minister Khamrokon Zarifi who said China had initially claimed more than 28,000 square kilometres. However, opposition leader Mukhiddin Kabiri said the land transfer was unconstitutional and represented a defeat for Tajik diplomacy [Washington Post].

India's land dispute with China may well last into the next century. Areas within the Aksai Chin are hotly contested by both nations and the region of Arunachal Pradesh is in particular dispute by the Chinese who claim it as their own.

To this day there remains what is known as a Line of Actual Control the effective border between India and China. The LAC is 4,057 km long and traverses three areas of northern Indian states: western (Ladakh, Kashmir), middle (Uttarakhand, Himachal) and eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal).

Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai first used the phrase in a letter addressed to Indian Prime Minister Nehru dated 24th October 1959. In a letter dated 7th November 1959 Zhou told Nehru that the LAC consisted of "the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west". During the Sino-Indian War (1962), Nehru claimed not to know where the line was. "There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call 'line of actual control'. What is this 'line of control'? Is this the line they have created by aggression since the beginning of September? Advancing forty or sixty kilometers by blatant military aggression and offering to withdraw twenty kilometers provided both sides do this is a deceptive device which can fool nobody."

Zhou responded that the LAC was "basically still the line of actual control as existed between the Chinese and Indian sides on 7th November 1959. The term "LAC" gained legal recognition in Sino-Indian agreements signed in 1993 and 1996. The 1996 agreement states, "No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control." For China it is a waiting game. For India the border dispute remains a constant concern.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

China stole stealth fighter technology, experts claim

Balkan military officials and other experts claim that China may have gleaned information from a US F-117 Nighthawk that was shot down over Serbia in 1999 and incorporated the technology into its own recently unveiled Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.

Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia's military chief of staff during the Kosovo war, says that Chinese agents were scouring the country for intelligence information at the time and that they were buying up anything they could lay their hands on.

"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," Admiral Domazet-Loso says. "We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies ... and to reverse-engineer them."

The Nighthawk was downed by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile during a bombing raid on 27 March 1999. It was the first time one of the fighters had been hit, and the Pentagon blamed clever tactics and sheer luck. The pilot ejected and was rescued.

A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up "in the hands of foreign military attaches" but did not specify which countries were involved.

Parts of the F-117 wreckage [serial number 82–806], including its left wing, cockpit canopy, ejection seat, pilot's helmet and radio, are exhibited at Belgrade's aviation museum. But Zoran Milicevic, deputy director of the museum, said, "I don't know what happened to the rest of the plane. A lot of delegations visited us in the past, including the Chinese, Russians and Americans ... but no one showed any interest in taking any part of the jet."

However Zoran Kusovac, a Rome-based military consultant, said the regime of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic routinely shared captured western equipment with its Chinese and Russian allies. "The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese," Kusovac said.

The fact that Serbian forces launched Soviet-provided "Neva-M" missiles (NATO designation SA-3 Goa) to down the F-117A adds some credence to the story. According to an article published by DefenseTech in 2008 the wreckage of the F-117 was not immediately bombed due to possible media fallout from news footage showing civilians around the wreckage. This was despite the belief that the Serbs had invited Russian personnel to inspect the remains, inevitably compromising the US stealth technology.

While it is at least eight or nine years from entering service, the Chengdu J-20 made its inaugural flight on 11 January, revealing a dramatic step in the country's technological and militaristic development. Its maiden flight which came as US Defense Secretary visited China and met with President Hu has also concerned some within the Pentagon.

While the Pentagon have not commented on the latest claims, Robert Gates himself admitted that China was a lot farther down the road than previously believed.

Russia's Sukhoi T-50 prototype stealth fighter made its maiden flight last year and is due to enter service in about four years. It is also suspected the Russians also gained knowledge of stealth technology from the downed Nighthawk.

The United States Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor and the impending fielding of the F-35 Lightning II. While both employ stealth technology the retirement of the F-117 is considered to be a bad decision by some. "It was a mistake to retire them," said Dr. Richard Hallion, former historian of the Air Force and special assistant to that service's secretary. Hallion explained that the large number of F-16 and F-15 fighter-type aircraft flown by the Air Force are not stealthy and the number of F-22 Raptors, which do have stealth characteristics, are too few in number to meet the need for low-observable strike aircraft.

Although designated as a "fighter," the F-117 had no air-to-air capabilities. It was an attack aircraft that could carry some 2,000 Kg of bombs or missiles in an internal weapons bay. The first F-117s were retired in December 2006. The surviving aircraft are stored in hangars at a secret location in Nevada. Their special storage is based on retaining the secrecy of their special features rather than any consideration of someday reactivating the planes. However, this may well have already been compromised if the reports in the Guardian are to be believed.

On a final note, it has to be mentioned that only 41 days after the downing of the F-117A, the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade [Wikipedia]. While President Bill Clinton claimed the bombing was an accident, this was dismissed by the Chinese. Former ambassador Li Daoyu stated "we don't say it was a decision of Clinton or the White House", but the Chinese government describes the US explanation for "the so-called mistaken bombing" as "anything but convincing" and has never accepted the US version of events. The bombing may well be a coincidence, but recent reports will certainly raise eyebrows in some quarters.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Air security concerns raised after attack & threats

A bomb blast at a Moscow airport and a hi-jack threat over British airspace has raised concerns that threats still exist for air travellers and that the so-called War on Terror still exists.

On Monday afternoon an explosion ripped through Moscow's Domodedovo airport, the busiest in the Russian capital, killing at least 35 people. Some 170 people were injured in the blast, which reports suggested was the work of a suicide bomber.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has vowed to track down and punish those behind an apparent suicide bomb attack which is being blamed on militants from Russia's restive North Caucasus region.

Last March the Russian capital's underground system was rocked by two female suicide bombers from Russia's volatile Dagestan region, who detonated their explosives on the busy metro system during rush hour, killing 40 people and injuring more than 80.

Amongst those who died in Monday's attack were two Britons, though their identities were not immediately released [BBC].

Meanwhile in the skies over Britain jets were scrambled after a passenger on board an Etihad flight bound for London's Heathrow Airport made undisclosed threats to the aircraft.

The Airbus was redirected to Stansted Airport and two RAF Typhoon jets were deployed to accompany the airliner.

Flight EY19 landed shortly before midday and a 37 year old British national was arrested according to Essex police. Passengers on board the plane which was travelling from Abu Dhabi to Heathrow gave various accounts of what occurred during the flight.

A source at the airport said, "We are hearing all sorts of things but it sounds as though the passenger has said something to a woman on board and it's all kicked off. It must have been bad for this to have happened though. There's lots of different stories going around." According to one passenger the man had been "very drunk and was making a scene."

The Ministry of Defence confirmed the deployment of Typhoon aircraft to escort the passenger aircraft but gave few other details.

A planespotter at Stansted described the incident as dramatic. "I've never seen anything like that in all the years I've been spotting planes here," Ted Underhill said. "It just flew in with a fighter, which I think was Typhoon. The fighter spent a few minutes circling over the airfield, it was quite low as the plane landed, then went up and circled round a few times and then someone must have given the all clear to go," he told reporters. "I've heard there was second fighter but I didn't see it. The landing looked quite normal to me. I assumed there had been some sort of terrorist incident or some sort of trouble onboard."

In recent weeks, the UK raised the security threat level for the country's transport hubs to "severe" from "substantial". It highlights the mounting concern over a possible terrorist attack in Europe.

The threat level of "severe" is deemed as meaning that an attack is highly likely, and is one below the highest level, "critical," which means there is intelligence of an imminent threat.

Several of the UK's security chiefs recently have warned about the ongoing threat from terrorists. In November, the head of London's Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, said in a speech that the UK faces its most dangerous stretch in the fight against terrorism since two failed attacks in the summer of 2007 [BBC / Telegraph / WSJ / Daily Mail].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"British Madoff" admits guilt to £14M fraud

A London trader has pleaded guilty to setting up a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of £14 million [$21.8 million]. Former GFX Capital director Terry Freeman, 62, admitted to fraudulent trading and a string of other offenses, police said in a statement Wednesday. Two of the charges are related to conducting business while leading a bankrupt company.

Freeman, from Buckhurst Hill in Essex, promised investors no risks and high returns on the foreign exchange markets. But instead, he used their money to pay for holiday homes in Cyprus and France as well as gifts for his Russian wife, Yegana. Amongst the gifts he gave the 30 year old were a £120,000 [$187,000] custom-made diamond engagement ring some £50,000 [$78,000] worth of Tiffany jewellery.

Freeman was arrested in February 2009, at around the time rogue trader Bernie Madoff was standing trial, and as the global recession was at its worst. While not on the same scale as Madoff's fraudulent dealings, Freeman's fraudulent pyramid scheme is nonetheless significant and has left many of his investors in financial ruin.

At the time the City of London police would only say that their Economic Crime Department had begun an investigation into GFX Capital Markets Ltd., a licensed, but separate, affiliate firm of the Swiss-based GFX Capital.

The Swiss firm grants clients like Freeman limited power of attorney, enabling them to act as effective "money managers" and solicit their own clients to trade on the GFX platform. Investors in Freeman business gave him the power to place trades, disburse money and pay fees in their name, though "critical account functions", such as cash withdrawals, were supposed to remain with the investors.

GFX's trading platform is run by Saxo bank, a Danish bank specialising in providing currency speculation services for retail clients across Europe. According to a Saxo bank spokesman, GFX Capital were an "institutional partner". Saxo and GFX clients may prove to be big losers in the affair and Saxo's lawyers are said to be looking into the case as a matter of urgency.

Following his arrest Freeman was said to be in fear for his life [BBC]. The trader had reason to be fearful. The anger amongst his clients was building and his house [above left] was vandalised with obscene graffiti and white paint daubed over the walls and windows. Police said they were concerned but did not increase security around the former trader [The Times / Daily Telegraph].

The alleged fraud was estimated to be in excess of £40 million [$62 million]. Dubbed a 'mini-Madoff', Terry Freeman disappeared from his home on the outskirts of London after rumours and reports spread about his arrest. Speculation grew on Internet forums as to where the trader had gone. Some suggested he may have fled to an apartment in Cyprus [above right], said to be owned by Freeman.

Described as a "luxury resort apartment" close to the beach and town centre, according to a property rental site Owners Direct. The apartment boasted a large living area, a balcony with sea views and access to a communal pool area, as well as being only a 5 minute walk to Paphos beaches and World Heritage Sites. The webpage was removed soon after Freeman's arrest.

It was later revealed that Freeman had changed his name and continued trading despite being a disqualified director. In mid-February, a week after his arrest, the Financial Times said Freeman had changed his name from Terry Sparks and that he had been authorised to act as a director by the Financial Services Authority more than two years ago. This in spite of being barred from taking such a role in companies until 2012.

The revelation has gathered investors together with many now seeking compensation from the FSA [Times]. The multimillion-pound compensation claim was the latest in a series of problems facing the regulatory body. In previous months they had been accused of being negligent in its monitoring of Northern Rock, the financial institution which ran into trouble in 2008.

Meanwhile Terry Freeman continued to protest his innocence. In a letter to his clients Freeman talked about how he had been continually libelled and slandered. "My right to a fair trial is constantly being compromised," Freeman said. He also talked about how he had been living in fear. "My life and those of my family have been threatened continually, to the extent that I am effectively being forced to live a hand to mouth existence, under constant and real threat, unable to return to our home address," Terry Freeman said.

He insisted that he had not absconded and would defend himself vigorously in court. "I have not 'disappeared' and I am not living in a villa in the Cayman Islands," Freeman told his investors. "The reported 'losses' are obscenely exaggerated...and I expect to contest any allegations and charges and to be completely vindicated."

But this week, Terry Freeman pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court to the swindling of millions from his investors. Instead of high returns promised by Freeman, his clients lost thousands of pounds. Amongst his victims were police officers, Premiership footballers and the Colin Montgomerie's ex-wife Eimear Montgomerie, who won an £8 million [$12 million] divorce settlement from the golfer.

Freeman spent the money on holiday homes in France and Cyprus, luxury holidays, high-performance cars and first-class flights around the world. But many of his victims have yet to come forward. Described as the British Bernie Madoff after the disgraced Wall Street financier who ran the largest-ever $65 million [£41 million] Ponzi fraud in the US, police believe that Freeman may have stolen as much as £23 million [$36 million]. However only 335 of his 700 victims have come forward. Those that have are said to be seeking compensation from the FSA for failing to stop Freeman in his tracks. As for Freeman, he will likely face jail when sentenced next month [Daily Mail / Evening Standard / Guardian / Independent / Epping Forest Guardian / CNBC / Daily Telegraph]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

China’s stealth fighter takes to the air

Two days after US defence secretary Robert Gates touched down on the Chinese mainland, China's first stealth fighter has taken to the air on its maiden flight.

The J-20 was unveiled only a few days ago via a story in the People's Daily newspaper [Daily Mail], but today it was reported to have made its first known test flight according to AP [Washington Post].  

China's neighbours will be watching carefully. Aviation experts believe the jet is much larger than similar American or Russian fighters and has been designed to fly long distances. Although China has repeatedly reaffirmed that it is a peaceful nation with no interests in stirring up regional unrest, the fact that China has unveiled a stealth aircraft will unnerve many countries in the region who do not have the ability either to develop or detect such aircraft.

Of particular concern is the hostile behaviour exhibited recently after Chinese fishermen were arrested for ramming a Japanese ship near a disputed island chain in the East Sea last September.

After the US agreed to sell Patriot missiles to Taiwan last year, China publicly tested a missile intercept system in a show of its own strength [Telegraph].

But China insists its military expenditure is one of defence. "Research and development of weapons systems are absolutely not intended for targeting any country, and will not pose a threat to any country in the world," Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie said on state-run television this week. And he told the state run China Daily that "the Sino-US military relationship has new opportunities for development," but at the same time "faces challenges" a possible reference to the US sale of 60 Black Hawk helicopters, 114 advanced Patriot air defense missiles, a pair of Osprey mine-hunting ships as well as dozens of advanced communications systems to longtime Chinese adversary Taiwan [CNN].

The United States have remained somewhat mute over China's growing militarisation these past few days as talks continue between the two nations. However Robert Gates has made one reference to the new stealth fighter saying, during a press conference, that China "may be somewhat further ahead in the development of the aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted."

"They [China] clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk and we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs," Gates said.

However while China spends, Gates has been making cuts. While some have been in areas of healthcare [] there are some specifically connected to hardware. Citing the need to cut the Defense Department budget, the Defence Secretary has suspended plans to manufacture the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter [JSF], called the F-35B.

China's President Hu Jintao is due to begin a state visit to the US on 19th January. Already President Barack Obama has joined in preparatory talks at the White House between his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. During the meeting, Obama said he was committed to building a bilateral relationship that is "cooperative in nature" a statement very similar to the rhetoric put out by Chinese officials.

There are however difficult issues to discuss. While tensions over military strength are a concern, more pressing for Obama's administration is the continued friction surrounding the value of the Chinese Yuan [WSJ].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Mass bird deaths puzzles experts

In something that could be the beginnings of a plot from an Alfred Hitchcock movie there have been reports from around the world of mysterious occurrences of birds dropping dead and falling from the sky. In the latest incident report dozens of birds fell onto a street in Sweden and as yet there is no explanation as to what caused their deaths.

On Friday last week hundreds of blackbirds were found dead in Arkansas in the United States after apparently dropping from the sky shortly before midnight [BBC]. Although there are suggestions they may have been victim to fireworks set off during new year festivities, there is no official explanation as to what caused the birds' deaths [BBC].

Police in the town of Falkoeping have told Swedish media that between 50 and 100 jackdaws had died in the latest incident to be reported. Some are said to have been hit by cars but others have no visible injuries. Parallels have already been drawn with the mysterious death of about 3,000 red-winged blackbirds in the US state of Arkansas.

Veterinary officials told Swedish radio that the case in Falkoeping was rare and that there could be a number of reasons such as "disease or poisoning". The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet quoted one resident, Drilon Hulaj, who said that as he drove home late on Tuesday night the street in front of him was dotted with "hundreds of dead birds" [Fox News].

While the phenomena of birds falling from the sky is not unusual in itself, the number of reports coming so close together has caused a flurry of excitement on social media websites. Chris Cunnyngham, writing for the Enquirer, said that mass bird deaths are nothing new and points to at least one case in April 2010 when some 100 birds fell out of a Texas sky and onto a Highway 66 bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard. Many witnesses were said to be "freaked out" by the event. This followed a March incident in which 100 starlings dropped out of the sky and managed to land in a single 4 metre garden in Somerset, England. Experts there concluded that the birds died from "collision." Thou it was not explained what that had collided with.

As reports of the Swedish event was tweeted around the globe on Twitter, there were yet more reported incidents of birds dropping from the skies. Kentucky wildlife officials say several hundred dead birds were found dead in the western part of the state last week, amongst them grackles, red wing blackbirds, robins and starlings. And another 450 birds died this week in Louisiana, apparently after hitting power lines or cars.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Marraccini said tests performed on the birds ruled out diseases or poisons and that the deaths could have been caused by weather or another natural event [Washington Post].

Bird experts have stressed no one should be worried by the spate of incidents. "Mass bird die-offs can be caused by starvation, storms, disease, pesticide, collision with man-made structures or human disturbance ... Initial findings indicate that these are isolated incidents that were probably caused by disturbance and disorientation," Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the Audubon Society, said.

Of course the rational explanations have failed to halt the hysteria that is sweeping the Internet on bulletin boards, forums and on social media. Comments left on the Guardian website were varied, ranging from the insane to the bizarre. "I read an article on here about some Christian group in the US claiming the end of the world will be on the 21st May this year... Of course, all that stuff is just silly nonsense. Right? Right?!" one writer posted. "Remember the ten plagues of Egypt? -eek!-", another wrote, referring to the Bible. Some have even suggested the bird deaths were a result of a death ray weapon test while others have put forward the idea it was a force field emitted by aliens [UFO Casebook] .

It has not just been birds mysteriously dying however. The Guardian refers to the death of fish in parts of the US while the New Zealand Herald talks of large numbers of snappers being found washed up on New Zealand's beaches. And the Daily Mail and Star report of hundreds of starfish and crabs being washed up on shores of England.

Of course it may all be just coincidence, even if more than a little bizarre. Some however are hoping that the events were a sign of an impending apocalypse. "I really hope it's the end of the world," one comment read on the Guardian webpage, "life's rubbish anyway!"

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year in Beijing

Most cultures around the world celebrate the dawning of a new year, and China is to some extent no different. However the spring festival which marks the changeover from one astrological sign to another is more strictly observed. Bars in the expat quarters of Beijing are of course packed on new year's eve, but beyond that there is not the massive celebration seen in the west where it would be difficult to find a drinking establishment without standing room only.

In Beijing it is mainly the youth that have taken on board what is mostly a western tradition of seeing in the new year at the stroke of midnight on 31st December. This could be seen at restaurants around the city where people queued for hours for a table at the most popular venues. At one branch of Spice Spirit, a restaurant specializing in spicy Sichuan cuisine, customers waited for for an average of one and a half hours to be seated. Having a customer loyalty card did move you forward along the queue more quickly however. One staff member said it was the busiest night since Christmas Eve which saw hundreds queuing for up to 4 hours.

Most bars tend to cater for the expats and tourists. Situated along the lakes to the west of the Forbidden City, or clustered in the commercial Sanlitun District to the east, most are haven for foreigners. But there are a few bars dotted around town that are mainly frequented by a predominantly Chinese clientèle. One such establishment is a German bar and restaurant called Der Landgraf [City Weekend]. While there are the occasional foreign visitors, most of the patrons are local Beijingers. And this was no different on new years eve.

The bar is very typically German, both in terms of the beer served and the food on offer. The decor is relatively authentic too with dark wood panelling and a genuine five metre copper beer vat above the bar. It has been serving up authentic German food since 1999 put together by chefs trained in Germany. There is also a beer garden, though with temperatures in Beijing hitting lows of -10°C this was rather empty on Friday night.

Inside it was far from empty but there was still ample seating space. Nearly everyone in the bar were locals downing vast quantities of Weisbier. One particular speciality is the excellent Schwarzbier. The Köstritzer sells for 45 RMB [£4.50] for a 0.5 litre glass, but more popular amongst the locals were the racks of Weihenstephan or the like. Costing upwards of 230 RMB [£23] for ten 0.3 litre glasses of beer, these are delivered to the table on a long slat of wood, sometimes referred to as a metre of beer.

The atmosphere was friendly, but unlike other new year celebrations one might have encountered. A live band played a few numbers throughout the evening, but took breaks after only two songs. The selection was also unusual as they began with "Take Me Home, Country Roads", a song written by John Denver, and later played a few traditional Chinese songs. The live entertainment finished before midnight however and the DJ began to pump out the sounds of rave music. It also became clear that no-one was keeping an eye on the clock as midnight approached. As 2011 began it was only a few expats toast the new year with a shot of Schnapps that seemed to alert the rest of the clientèle that the hour had struck twelve, as echoes of "Xin nian kuai le" [新年快樂 - Happy New Year] reverberated around the room to the toast initiated by the only foreigners in the bar.

But at 5 past the hour as the record came to an end, the locals more than made up for it. Glasses of sparkling wine were handed out to all the customers by bar staff and there were loud exaltations across the room. One small group of Chinese youngsters took it unto themselves to visit every table to toast the new year. The festivities were a little too much for some however. Just as is too often seen around the globe, too much alcohol can leave people somewhat worse for wear. At least two or three customers had obviously had more than enough. One had fallen asleep as he sat with his friend, while in a private room to one side another customer lay virtually comatose on a bench, and did not seem overly enthusiastic about a party of revellers bursting in to wish him a happy new year! But the atmosphere was good natured, and apart from a few hangovers, most would have enjoyed themselves.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China