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8 die in blast near Syrian ruling party HQ

DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- A car bomb exploded at the headquarters of Syria's ruling party killing at least eight people in Damascus Thursday, state media and opposition activists said.


Eight body bags were brought for remains of passengers inside a taxi, Syria's state-run television said.

Unclear was whether the driver blew up the car while inside of it, or parked the vehicle and left to remotely set detonate it, CNN said.

The Local Coordination Committees, an association of opposition groups, said at least 163 people were killed across Syria Wednesday, including 19 children and eight women.

The organization said most of the victims were from Damascus and its suburbs, where 96 people died, including 48 opposition activists said were killed in an air attack on Hamoria, CNN said.

Video of the purported attack was posted on YouTube. The regime has cracked down on media, largely preventing foreign news agencies from reporting on the fighting that began in March 2011 as protests against President Bashar Assad before devolving into civil war.


The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency blamed "terrorists" -- its term for anti-Assad rebels -- for two mortar rounds that hit a Damascus sports stadium, killing a soccer player, and wounding several other players and team staff.

CNN reported Syrian rebels warned Hezbollah militants to stop fighting on Assad's behalf or face a violent response.

Joint South Korean, U.S. drill set

SEOUL, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The annual South Korean-U.S. military drill will be next month to improve the forces' capabilities against North Korean threats, it was announced Thursday.

The Combined Forces Command's announcement comes as North Korea continues with provocations, the latest being its long-range rocket launch Dec. 12 and its third nuclear test Feb. 12.

The CFC said in a release that the Key Resolve drill will be March 11-25 and involve about 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. troops.

The drill, using computer simulation, will test various scenarios with the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff taking a lead role in conducting operations as the country prepares to regain its wartime operational control from Washington at the end of 2015.

"This is the first year that the Key Resolve exercise is being led by the Republic of Korea JCS, not the Combined Forces Command," the CFC said. "This will help improve the ROK (South Korean) military's operational command capabilities and establish a basis for the wartime operations control transition."


The two sides also plan the Foal Eagle land, sea and air maneuvers from March 1-April 30. It will involve mobilizing about 200,000 Korean and 10,000 U.S. troops, mostly from overseas, the release said.

The CFC said the North Korean military has been informed of the exercises.

Pistorius cop faces attempted murder charge

PRETORIA, South Africa, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The lead officer in the Oscar Pistorius murder case faces attempted-murder charges, South African police said as Pistorius' bail hearing entered its third day.

Detective Hilton Botha -- who offered sometimes confused testimony Wednesday during the second day of the bail hearing for the Olympic double-amputee sprinter -- faces seven counts of attempted murder after allegedly opening fire on seven passengers in a minibus while drunk with two other officers, Pretoria Police spokesman Brig. Neville Malila said Thursday.

Botha and the other officers fired the shots in 2009 while trying to stop the vehicle, Malila told reporters.

Botha was initially charged in the case, but the charges were later provisionally withdrawn and the matter was referred to the independent director of public prosecutions, Malila said.

"It was only yesterday [Wednesday] that we were informed by the DPP that [Botha] is being charged," The Times of South Africa quoted Malila as saying.


Botha is to appear in court in May to face the attempted-murder charges, but police still plan to keep him on the Pistorius case, Britain's Sky News reported.

Botha is the lead investigating officer in the murder of Pistorius' girlfriend, model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp, Feb. 14.

Report: Authorities 'disappear' Mexicans

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Security forces in Mexico have participated in the disappearances of hundreds of people from 2006-12, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch issued a 176-page report, "Mexico's Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored" Wednesday, documenting nearly 250 enforced disappearances during the administration of former President Felipe Calderon.

Toward the end of his presidency, Calderon promised to act on reports of enforced disappearances by the army, navy, and federal and local police, though he failed to do so, a release from Human Rights Watch said.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto hasn't done much better since he took over this year, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

"President Pena Nieto has inherited one of worst crises of disappearances in the history of Latin America," Vivanco said. "While his administration has announced some important measures to assist victims, it has yet to take the steps necessary to ensure that those responsible for these horrific crimes are brought to justice."


Prosecutors fail to thoroughly and promptly search for those reported missing, the release said.

In the report, Human Rights Watch suggested the government create a database of the disappeared and unidentified human remains; reform the Military Code of Justice to make sure disappearances committed by military personnel are adequately investigated; revise the definition of "enforced disappearance" so it consistent across the country; and mandate that all detainees be presented before the public prosecutor's office before being taken to a detention facility.

Fla. U-turn: Yes to Obama Medicaid option

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Gov. Rick Scott, a sharp critic of President Barack Obama's healthcare law, says he wants Florida to participate in an optional part of the law after all.

The Republican -- who vowed last July never to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's optional Medicaid portion -- did an about-face and told a news conference late Wednesday Florida should accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

"While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost, I cannot in good conscience deny Floridians that needed access to healthcare," Scott said.


"We will support a three-year expansion of the Medicaid program under the new healthcare law as long as the federal government meets their commitment to pay 100 percent of the cost during that time," he said, reading a statement.

His statement can be found at

Scott said he saw "no perfect options'' when it came to the Medicaid expansion.

"To be clear -- our options are either having Floridians pay to fund this program in other states while denying healthcare to our citizens," he said, "or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with the Medicaid program as we explore other healthcare reforms."

The Obama healthcare law expands Medicaid eligibility to families with incomes at 133 percent of the poverty level. That means 900,000 to as many as 1.95 million more Floridians could join Medicaid and other state-subsidized health-insurance programs over five years, the state Agency for Health Care Administration estimated last year.

Half the 30 million Americans nationwide expected to gain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act will do so by moving onto Medicaid, beginning Jan. 1.

Medicaid is the nation's largest health program, providing medical services to 56 million people with low incomes and disabilities, while also providing nursing-home aid to elderly people.


Medicaid is normally jointly financed by the federal government and the states, but the optional Medicaid-expansion program will be paid totally by Washington.

Scott said July 2, 2012, when he was one of the most ardent and outspoken GOP opponents of Obama's healthcare law, "Florida will opt out of spending approximately $1.9 billion more taxpayer dollars required to implement a massive entitlement expansion of the Medicaid program."

He'd entered politics in 2009 running national cable TV commercials criticizing the president's plan.

Scott's state led the way in challenging the president's signature legislative accomplishment in a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court upheld the constitutionality of most of the law June 28, 2012.

But after Obama's re-election, which secured the Affordable Care Act's political future, Scott changed his stance, he said.

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