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Feb. 19, 2013 at 8:00 AM   |   Comments

Pistorius has hearing; Steenkamp buried

PRETORIA, South Africa, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- South African paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius faces a premeditated murder charge in the shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, a judge said.

The ruling was handed down Tuesday after an emotional bail hearing in Pretoria, with prosecutors charging Steenkamp's killing was premeditated and the defense countering Pistorius thought she was an intruder, CNN reported.

Magistrate Desmond Nair said he could not rule out premeditation in her death so Pistorius' bail application would be more difficult, The New York Times reported. Nair said he would consider downgrading the charges depending on evidence presented during later hearings.

Pistorius, 26, a double-amputee who races on carbon-fiber blades, sobbed as prosecutors offered their version of how Steenkamp died by his hand on Thursday, CNN said.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said the killing was premeditated because Pistorius armed himself, attached his prosthetic legs and walked to the bathroom before shooting Steenkamp, who was spending the night, through a closed bathroom door. Pistorius fired four times, striking Steenkamp three times inside the bathroom.

"She could not go anywhere," Nel said. "It must have been horrific."

Defense attorney Barry Roux said the shooting was not premeditated -- that Pistorius shot his girlfriend thinking she was a burglar.

The defense says the shooting was "never ever" premeditated murder, and that prosecutors had no basis to infer Pistorius knew it was she behind the bathroom door, The (London) Independent reported.

Prosecutors had expressed doubt about the intruder assertion, asking why a burglar would hole up in a bathroom; Roux countered how the prosecution knew Pistorius attached his prosthetics and walked to the bathroom.

Meanwhile, friends and family mourned Steenkamp, 29, at a funeral service in her hometown of Port Elizabeth.


Obama said open to U-turn on arming rebels

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama is open to reversing himself and deciding to arm vetted Syrian rebel fighters, senior administration officials told The New York Times.

The possible U-turn comes as Obama has no clear strategy to resolve the crisis and apparently shrinking options for speeding Syrian President Bashar Assad's exit, the newspaper said.

Obama rejected a proposal by four top national security officials who wanted to arm the rebels last fall.

Those officials were Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, David Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, and Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state.

The rift became public Feb. 7 when Panetta and Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee they both supported the proposal brought to Obama in the fall but were rebuffed.

A question is whether Obama, surrounded by a new national security team -- including Secretary of State John Kerry and Chuck Hagel if he is confirmed as defense secretary -- would reach a different conclusion, the Times said.

"This is not a closed decision," a senior administration official told the newspaper. "As the situation evolves, as our confidence increases, we might revisit it."

U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal after Panetta and Dempsey testified before the Senate panel, Obama shelved the idea because of lingering questions about which rebels could be trusted with the arms -- and whether the weapons could be used against civilians or Israeli and U.S. interests.

The New York Times reported those same concerns Tuesday.


U.N.: Afghan civilian casualties decrease

KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- The number of civilian casualties in the Afghan war fell in 2012 for the first time since 2007, a U.N. report indicated.

"Afghanistan Annual Report 2012: Protection Of Civilians In Armed Conflict," released Tuesday in Kabul, said there was a 12 percent decrease in civilian deaths in 2012 over the previous year.

However, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan report recorded a 700 percent increase in casualties of government employees and 108 percent increase in the number of targeted killings by insurgents.

In 2012, UNAMA recorded 7,559 civilian casualties -- 2,754 deaths and 4,805 injuries. Eighty-one percent of civilian casualties were attributed to militants, 8 percent to pro-government forces and 11 percent couldn't be attributed to any party.

UNAMA documented 7,837 civilian casualties -- 3,131 killed and 4,706 injured -- in 2011. The civilian casualties of 7,559 in 2012 represents a 4 percent decrease in total civilian casualties compared to 2011.

The report listed four factors that contributed to the reduction in civilian casualties: fewer deaths and injuries of civilians from ground engagement among parties to the conflict; a decline in suicide attacks; fewer aerial operations; and measures taken by pro-government forces to minimize harm to civilians.

The annual report, prepared by UNAMA in coordination with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, also documented a 20 percent increase in the number of Afghan women and girls killed and injured in the conflict.


Cameron assures cooperation in probe

NEW DELHI, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron promised cooperation in India's probe of alleged kickbacks in a helicopter deal, his Indian counterpart said Tuesday.

Cameron, leading a large British trade team on a three-day Indian visit, met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders Tuesday in New Delhi.

The visit came at a time when the Indian government is facing accusations of corruption from opposition parties in the procurement of 12 helicopters under a $745 million deal from the Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland and its parent in Italy Finmeccanica.

In a statement after his meeting with Cameron, Singh said he informed Cameron of "our very serious concerns" regarding allegations about unethical means used in securing the 2010 contract for AgustaWestland helicopters.

"I have sought full assistance from the U.K. in this case. Prime Minister David Cameron has assured me of the cooperation of his government in the investigations," Singh said.

Italy is conducting its own investigation into the deal.

Cameron said: "In terms of AgustaWestland, we will respond to any request for information. I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail, as Finmeccanica is an Italian company," the BBC reported.

On Monday in Mumbai, the first stop on his India visit, Cameron said India's "rise is going to be one of the great phenomena of this century," and that "Britain wants to be your partner of choice."

The countries want to more than double bilateral merchandise trade to $34 billion by 2015.


China calls for calm to resolve tensions

BEIJING, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman denied a media report saying North Korea has informed Beijing about plans to conduct more nuclear tests.

Spokesman Hong Lei said he did not know where the report originated, China Daily said. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Feb. 12, its third since 2006, which was widely condemned by the international community including China.

Hong said the situation on the Korea Peninsula remains "sensitive and complicated," and China wants all concerned parties to exercise calm.

China has been calling for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks aimed at denuclearization of North Korea in return for massive aid to the isolated Communist country.

The participants in the talks include the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia and Japan. The talks, however, have remained suspended since 2009 after North Korea walked out.


Chinese earthquake injures four people

KUNMING, China, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- A magnitude-4.9 earthquake shook the border of China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces Tuesday, injuring four people, officials said.

Qiaojia County officials said the earthquake destroyed 56 houses and damaged 815 others in south central China.

"Many people ran out of buildings when the quake came but there was no falling debris. The shopping mall resumed business shortly afterward," one shopper told China's Xinhua news agency.

Officials said rescue work was under way.

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