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France has found itself the best positioned Western nation to assist in the regional fight against Boko Haram -- but also the most vulnerable to being sucked into an open-ended war, experts say.

Despite the presence of 3,000 troops in the region under France's Barkhane operation battling jihadist groups around the Sahel, Paris insists it will limit itself to "indirect support" of the widening African effort to combat Boko Haram.

But as cross-border attacks and atrocities by the Nigerian extremist group force a growing number of countries to respond, France may find itself unable to merely provide assistance at a safe distance.

A key factor in that dilemma will be whether the 8,700 troops that the governments of Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Benin have committed to fighting Boko Haram in and around the group's northern Nigerian stronghold will suffice to drive back its six-year insurgency that has left over 13,000 people dead.




Thus far, that challenge has been answered by the extremists increasing the frequency, violence and audacity of their strikes.

Should that collective African effort fail, Paris would be hard-pressed to continue limiting its involvement to logistical and intelligence support, air surveillance, and military coordination -- especially if Boko Haram began occupying wider territory outside Nigeria.

"Our role is to aid neighbouring countries facing a mortal threat," said a French diplomatic source, who nevertheless acknowledges it would be difficult to refuse requests for air support from Niger were Boko Haram to escalate attacks inside its border with Nigeria.

- 'Mortal threat' -

A spate of Boko Haram strikes on the southern Niger town of Diffa this week has already led France to dispatch a group of military advisers to the panicked zone, the source said.




French resistance to directly entering the battle would wane further if experienced and formidable Chadian forces suffered serious losses, or otherwise proved incapable of beating the extremist threat down.

Chad boasts by far the mightiest army in the region, and is France's main African military ally. Chadian soldiers provided irreplaceable ground help chasing Islamist militias that had taken control of northern Mali into the desert, as French power struck from the air.

It is now urgent to provide Chad "support very, very fast," the diplomat said, especially because fierce, war-hardened Chadian forces represent "the only rampart" against Boko Haram in the region.

In the meantime, Paris might well find it impossible to confine its 3,000-strong regional force to Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania if Boko Haram continues striking out from Nigeria into southern Niger and western Cameroon -- and perhaps even staged its first incursion into Chad.



Unlike its operation against jihadist militias in the Sahel, an active French role in the fight against Boko Haram would likely require troops on the ground as well as the air.

Paris is seeking to avoid such scenarios by urging international partners to join France in helping affected African nations help themselves against the extremists.

"France cannot settle all the world's conflicts," French President Francois Hollande said during a February 5 press conference, at which he scolded global powers for insufficient involvement in combatting Boko Haram.


Australia's Great Barrier Reef could be "severely damaged" if the government does not completely ban the dumping of dredge waste in the World Heritage-listed waters, a report commissioned by conservation group WWF said Monday.

The Australian government in January ordered a ban on dumping dredge spoil in the marine park as part of a push to stop the United Nations declaring the site in danger.

But the ban does not include most islands and ports as well as lakes and other waterways that fall outside the marine park but inside the slightly larger World Heritage Area.

Conservationists say dumping waste in reef waters damages it by smothering corals and sea grasses and exposing them to poisons and high levels of nutrients.

The report said port expansions within reef waters, which it noted could see some 51 million cubic metres (1.8 billion cubic feet) of the ocean floor dug up, would have "devastating impacts" on the natural wonder.

The report prepared by the consultancy Dalberg Global Development Advisors said there was no need for coal port expansions along Queensland state's coast -- where the reef is located -- as the capacity at existing terminals was unused one-third of the time.

"These coal port expansions could increase the total coal port capacity of the region from 267 to 637 million tonnes per year", the report added.

"This would make the total capacity of the Great Barrier Reef's coal ports just less than the overall capacity of the current largest port in the world: Shanghai, China."

Australia has come under scrutiny from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over the reef's health.

UNESCO threatened to put the reef on its World Heritage in danger list, but delayed taking action until the start of this month to allow Australia to submit a report on how it will protect the bio-diverse site.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said his government's report to UNESCO "clearly demonstrates that the Great Barrier Reef does not warrant being listed as in danger".



Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday ordered the government takeover of a private supermarket chain, accusing the company of food hoarding amid huge lines and shortages in the crisis-hit country.

Maduro did not say whether the move amounted to an expropriation, but he said the government's PDVAL food distribution agency would take over "all service of this chain that was waging war against the population."

He did not name the company, but it is widely assumed that he was referring to Dia a Dia. Maduro, who spoke on state television, did not say if the measure would be permanent.

It was the leftist leader's latest attempt to control what he has dubbed an "economic war" waged by the private sector and the opposition to destabilize the recession-hit country.

He has accused companies of hoarding goods to keep "the population irritated, suffering" in order to fuel discontent against the government.

Maduro deployed soldiers and state workers to Dia a Dia shops on Tuesday to supervise the sale of products. A similar intervention was made at the Farmatodo drugstore chain.

Dia a Dia's director, Manuel Morales, was jailed Friday and accused of "boycott and destabilization" of the economy. Two Farmatodo executives were detained this week.

The country entered recession last year while inflation soared to 64 percent. Compounding the economic crisis, oil prices have drastically dropped, forcing Maduro to order government budget cuts.




He has little interest in politics and is no socialist fanatic, but Xu Ruilin spends every free moment practising how to speak, write, walk and think like Mao Zedong.

The 58-year-old has an eerie resemblance to the founding father of Communist China, and is one of scores of lookalike Chinese actors in ever increasing demand as production of historical propaganda television shows and films goes into overdrive.

Known as "texing yanyuan" -- "special type of actors" -- each one portrays a particular departed leader in voice, looks and style, akin to Elvis impersonators for famous Communists.

As well as Mao, their alter egos include his right hand man Zhou Enlai, economic reformer Deng Xiaoping and a host of other top brass.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 and launched a crackdown on dissent, China's broadcast censors have narrowed what is deemed acceptable, sending producers flocking to the relative safety of shows and films in line with the Communist Party’s approved version of history.

"Actors and directors told me for years I should play Chairman Mao, but mostly I ignored them," said Xu, who spent most of his career in the theatre.

"But these days there are so many opportunities to play Mao."

Even out of character, Xu has the Great Helmsman's hair and features. At work, he completes the transformation with a signature artificial chin mole, a grey Mao suit -- the trousers hiked far above the navel -- and by chain-smoking cigarettes.

He is constantly working on his Hunan dialect, the provincial inflected Chinese of Mao's home, and the leader's particular style of calligraphy, still used for the masthead of the ruling party's mouthpiece newspaper the People's Daily.


Even Mao Xinyu, Mao's corpulent grandson and a major general in the People's Liberation Army, has given him his blessing, saying he was "very satisfied" with his performance, Xu said.

The more fortunate actors get starring screen roles, but most mimics are relegated, like their hip-gyrating Elvis brethren, to playing to smaller audiences, renting themselves out for corporate events, weddings and birthdays.

"Company tours always start with a rousing speech and then I'm treated like a visiting dignitary, like the real Mao, during a tour," said Xu, days after an appearance at a battery factory.


- 'We Are Party Members' -


The vast majority of Chinese television historical dramas centre on the country's recent past, often set during Japan's 20th-century invasion and occupation, and with Communist Party cadres always the heroes.

They have seen a marked increase since Xi took power, accounting for roughly 44 percent of all Chinese shows produced in 2013, according to statistics from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the most recent available.

Most of the entries on one SAPPRFT list of 127 "recommended television programmes for broadcast" leaked by Chinese media last year were propaganda pieces, with titles including "Deng Xiaoping at History's Crossroads", "Zhu De, a Founding Father" and "We Are Party Members".




Plot lines in other shows are also subject to the censors' whim, which has seen time travel, one-night stands, the use of sex in espionage, and women falling in love with more than one man all banned as subjects, along with wordplay and puns.

"Restrictions placed on most programmes make them very difficult to produce, but anyone is completely free to make anti-Japanese or historical shows," Zhu Dake, a professor at Shanghai's Tongji University, told AFP.

"In order to avoid spending a lot of money only to have a programme censored, everyone's making so-called historical shows because they have less restrictions and there's less risk."


- Soviet import -


The special actor concept was largely an import from the Soviet Union, beginning in the late 1970s in the wake of Mao’s death and initially limited to one or two actors constantly reprising their roles.

It has expanded in tandem with the media landscape and been a boon for Guo Weihua, who could be a twin of Zhou Enlai, but drives a Mercedes and sips lattes at Starbucks.

"I used to play other parts, but now there's too many projects with Zhou Enlai I almost always play him," said Guo, 52. "He has already gone into my bone marrow, when I'm standing in front of a camera, I am Zhou Enlai."

After appearing as Zhou in more than 70 television series and films, Guo would like to diversify but is thoroughly typecast.





More than a decade after 9/11, Americans who come across a turban-wearing Sikh are still prone to mistaking him for a Muslim, according to a study released Monday.

Sixty percent of Americans who participated in the study by the non-profit National Sikh Campaign admitted to knowing nothing about the Sikhs who live, study and work in their midst.

When shown a photo of a smiling older Sikh male in a red turban, 28 percent of respondents thought he was Middle Eastern and 20 percent believed he was Muslim.

Thirty-five percent thought he might be from India, or of Indian descent. Only 11 percent correctly identified him as Sikh.

Shown a fashionable young woman with knee-length hair -- the Sikh faith discourages hair-cutting for either sex -- 20 percent described her as Middle Eastern. No one thought she was Sikh.

"We have been very much part of the American fabric, and yet we are not well known, and often misunderstood," said Rajwant Singh, co-founder and senior adviser of the National Sikh Campaign.

"Frankly speaking, we are just tired of being the target and we want to be understood."

The first Sikhs emigrated to the United States from what was then British-ruled India a century ago.

Today, the Sikh American community numbers between 200,000 and 500,000. Estimates vary because the US Census Bureau collects no data on religious affiliation.

But in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Sikhs have found themselves targeted -- with sometimes bloody results -- by Americans who presume anyone in a turban must be a Muslim.

"I feel there is still a lot of ignorance," said Arizona businessman Rana Singh Sodhi, who lost two brothers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.

One of the brothers, Arizona gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, was slain four days after 9/11 by a white American who reportedly bragged that he wanted to go out and "shoot some towelheads" to avenge the attacks.

The gunman, Frank Silva Roque, got a death sentence for his actions that was later reduced to life imprisonment.

A second brother, Sukhpal Sodhi, died in 2012 after he was hit, apparently by a stray bullet from a gang fight, in his San Francisco taxi cab.

In August 2012, a white supremacist and US army veteran fatally shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin before taking his own life.

It was the worst attack on a place of worship in the United States since the 1963 bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama that left four dead and 22 injured.

Jaswant Singh Sachdev, a prominent member of the Sikh community in Arizona, said he remembered a time when Sikhs were viewed as "nobility" in American society.

The mood changed, he said, during the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis when supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was cast as a villain in US media.

Sikhs wear their turbans in a peaked style; Iranian clergy wrap theirs in a flat, circular fashion, but many Americans failed to notice a difference.

"When they see it, even the children, it is always the turban that causes suspicion and fear in those who see it for the first time," he said.





Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates says the world must use the lessons from battling Ebola to prepare for any future "war" against a global killer disease, with the help of new technology.

Gates, in Berlin for a donor conference of the GAVI alliance bringing vaccines to poor countries, said the risk of a worldwide pandemic meant it was reckless not to act now.

"A more difficult pathogen (than Ebola) could come along, a form of flu, a form of SARS or some type of virus that we haven't seen before," he said in an interview with AFP.

"We don't know it will happen but it's a high enough chance that one of the lessons of Ebola should be to ask ourselves: are we as ready for that as we should be? A good comparison is that we prepare ourselves for war -- we have planes and training and we practise."

He said this included building teams of volunteers who are ready to mobilise quickly in a public health emergency, similar to schemes developed in the countries hit hardest by Ebola: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which registered almost 9,000 deaths in the last year.




Video from a US Coast Guard aircraft released Monday captured the drama of a single-engine airplane and its pilot splashing safely onto the Pacific Ocean thanks to a parachute inside its fuselage.

The factory-new Cirrus SR22 was en route to Hawaii on Sunday afternoon on a ferry flight from the San Francisco area when it "ran out of fuel," the Coast Guard said in a press release.

Video from the C-130 Hercules rescue plane showed the ill-starred aircraft deploy its airframe parachute -- standard equipment on the five-seat aircraft that sells for $725,000 in its turbocharged version -- an estimated 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above the sea.

Three and a half minutes later, the Cirrus hit the water with a splash, and the unidentified pilot is seen climbing into a small life raft.

He was picked up about a half-hour later by a passing cruise ship, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) off the Hawaiian island of Maui.

"The pilot was reported to be in good condition. The plane was last observed partially submerged," the Coast Guard said.

The pilot had reported four hours earlier that he had approximately three hours of fuel remaining, and estimated he would have to ditch 230 miles from Maui.

That gave search and rescue teams valuable time to dispatch the Hercules and identify the Holland America cruise ship Veendam, sailing from San Diego, California to Maui, as a likely rescue vessel.

Flight tracking website indicated that the US-registered aircraft was flying a 2,420-mile route from Tracy airport near San Francisco to Kahului, on Maui.

Tracy is a frequently used departure point for small aircraft on ferry flights from the US mainland via Hawaii to East Asia and Australia.

- Plane parachute has saved dozens -

A Cirrus SR22 can typically fly for 800 nautical miles (1,500 kilometers), but for transoceanic journeys it is fitted with extra fuel tanks in the cabin.




The city of Paris said Tuesday it plans to sue US chain Fox News for reports that there were "no-go zones" in the French capital that police and non-Muslims avoid.

The reports in the wake of the Islamist attacks in Paris two weeks ago have been widely derided and prompted Fox to issue an on-air apology for suggesting parts of Paris and the English city of Birmingham were run under Islamic Shariah law.

"A complaint will be filed in the coming days," despite the apology, said a source at Paris city hall.

The news channel broadcast a map outlining the so-called no-go zones, which an expert, Nolan Peterson said felt like Afghanistan or Iraq.

On Saturday a Fox news anchor apologised for "some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe, particularly with regard to England and France.

"Now this applies especially to discussions of so-called no-go zones, areas where non-Muslims allegedly are not allowed in and police supposedly won't go," the anchor said.

The Fox reports spawned much derision online and saw local news show Le Petit Journal send fake correspondents Mike and John to report on these so-called dangerous areas.

"Oh my God it's an Islamist, he has a beard," one of the jittery reporters cries as a taxi pulls up (




The American creator of "Maus", a graphic novel about the Holocaust, has denounced the "hypocrisy" of US media for refusing to republish the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo magazine, targeted in an Islamist attack last week.

Art Spiegelman said he "admires" Charlie Hebdo and thought the satirical magazine fulfilled its "mission" in 2006 by publishing a controversial caricature of Mohammed.

"I think it's so hypocritical to drape yourself in freedom of speech and then self-censor yourself to the point where you are not making your readers understand the issues," Spiegelman told AFP during a visit to Beijing.

"That cartoon was not making fun of the prophet, it was excoriating the believers who would kill."

While many media outlets republished several front-page cartoons in the wake of an attack that left 12 dead, among them some of Charlie Hebdo's top cartoonists, some of the largest US newspapers, including the New York Times, refused for fear of offending readers.

"We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult," Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said according to a blog post written by the public editor Margaret Sullivan.

Spiegelman's critically-acclaimed "Maus" depicts his Jewish father's experience during the Holocaust, casting Jews as the mice of the title and Nazis as cats, and is the only comic book to have won a Pulitzer Prize.




Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Saturday vowed to pursue reforms while gradually lowering taxes as central planks of a programme he hopes will secure victory in January 25 elections.

"Our national plan ... in 2015-2021 includes reforms to boost growth and competitiveness, " the prime minister of the centre-right coalition told hundreds of ministers and supporters of his conservative New Democracy party.

Previous interruptions to that reform programme were due to cleaning up the public sector and to aid investment and competitiveness, he told his audience in an Athens hotel.

Samaras and his party are running behind leftist leader Alexis Tsipras and his radical Syriza party in the opinion polls, ahead of the snap parliamentary elections.

The prime minister praised the reform work his coalition has done over the past two and a half years to prevent Greece from leaving the eurozone.

But global markets have plunged at the beginning of last week, seized by a fresh bout of fears that Greece may be forced to abandon the euro if Syriza came to power.

The far-left Syriza party wants to abandon the austerity policy imposed by the EU and IMF as part of the country's 240-billion-euro ($282 billion) international bailout.

Greece has seen some improvement in its public finances under the current coalition, returning to economic growth last year after six painful years of recession, thanks to the deep and deeply unpopular reforms required by the international creditors.

However he stressed that the timid return to growth had not yet permeated through to the public at large, with the unemployment rate still the highest in the eurozone at 25 percent and with one in five people deemed to be living in poverty.