Group says Syria has not freed prisoners

DAMASCUS, Syria, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The Syrian government’s promise to free 700 political prisoners was only a delay tactic, a human-rights group says.

Will Davies, a spokesman for Avaaz.org, said the group has received information that only 13 people have been released, The Daily Telegraph reported. Avaaz communicates with activists inside Syria.

“Making this promise to release more than 700 is another case of regime stalling tactics as the regime plays for time and tries to placate the Arab League,” Davies said.

Syria agreed to a number of steps recommended by the Arab League in a plan to end the violence there. They also included withdrawing security forces from a number of cities that are centers of opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations estimates 5,000 people have died, most of them dissidents killed by security forces, since large protests began in Syria.

Christchurch hit by aftershock

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A 5.3-magnitude aftershock earthquake struck near Christchurch, New Zealand, early Saturday, officials said.

The quake’s center was 8 miles northeast of Christchurch with a depth of 6.3 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties, the Australian News Network reported.

Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, is still recovering from a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in February that killed 182 people and caused about $15 billion in damage.

Repairs on Russian sub to take a year

MURMANSK, Russia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Repairing a Russian nuclear submarine, damaged by a fire while docked near Murmansk, will take at least a year, a Zvezdochka shipyard spokesman said.

The outer hull for the Yekaterinburg nuclear sub caught fire Thursday during repairs, RIA Novosti reported.

Fuel and lubricants were set on fire by welding on the submarine’s nose section. Officials cited fire safety violations during routine maintenance work as the most likely cause.

“According to our specialists, the repair terms will be known as soon as the damage is assessed and when it becomes clear whether a new hydro acoustic complex is needed for the sub,” Zvezdochka spokesman Yevgeny Gladyshev said. “According to our first assessments, repairs may take as long as one year.”

The sub’s hydro acoustic system was wrecked during the fire and will likely have to be replaced before it is back in service.

Maliki marks end of U.S. occupation

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised democracy Saturday as he celebrated the official end of the security agreement with the United States.

Maliki spoke for about 25 minutes at a ceremony held in a sports arena, The Washington Post reported.

“I’m telling you, Iraq is for all those who believe in the democracy,” he said.

The prime minister also sent a text message to Iraqis.

“All of us are for Iraq glory and pride in the nation. I congratulate you and our Iraqi people on this historic day. With love, and with my respect to you and your honorable family, your brother, Nouri al-Maliki,” he wrote.

U.S. troops pulled out two weeks ago. Since then, the country has shown some signs of fraying along sectarian lines.

Two provincial Shiite leaders announced Saturday they are withdrawing from the opposition al-Iraqiya bloc, which has the support of many Sunni Muslims. Both said they are considering joining Maliki’s coalition, the State of Law bloc.

Death toll from India cyclone climbs to 46

CHENNAI, India, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The death toll from Cyclone Thane on the southeastern coast of India climbed to 46 Saturday and the storm displaced at least 20,000 people, authorities said.

Relief operations were under way in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and Union Territory of Puducherry, Press Trust of India reported.

At least 20,000 people were in relief camps in the Cuddalore district.

The Times of India said nine deaths caused by accidents related to heavy rains were reported Saturday — five in Cuddalore, three in Kanchipuram and one in Theni.

Thane crossed the coast between Cuddalore and Puducherry, bringing torrential rains and gale winds that uprooted hundreds of trees and took down utility poles, disrupting power.

In Cuddalore, the hardest-hit district, essential items such as milk had become scarce and officials began supplying water through 60 tankers.

Repairing roads and restoring the water supply, electricity and telecommunications would take a week, an official said.

“Major roads are being cleared of uprooted trees and traffic has resumed,” Cuddalore Deputy Superintendent of Police S. Vanitha said. “People are returning to their homes or going to the homes of their relatives from relief camps. Life is coming back to normalcy.”

Two students arrested for bullying

DAEGU, South Korea, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Two South Korean middle school students were arrested Saturday for bullying a classmate who committed suicide, police said.

On Dec. 20, the 14-year-old jumped off an apartment building in Daegu after being severely bullied by his classmates, Yonhap News Agency reported.

When issuing the arrest warrant, Daegu District Court Judge Kim Hyung-tae cited the seriousness of bullying and the possibility the students may flee.

After the suicide, Seoul’s Education Ministry promised to protect students from school violence by launching regular probes and sending counselors to schools across the country.

School violence in South Korea is high, Yonhap News Agency reported, with 735 students in primary and secondary schools committing suicide between 2006 and 2010 because of bullying.

Vancouver gives addicts free crack pipes

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Health officials in Vancouver say they have begun giving crack addicts free pipes as part of an effort to prevent the spread of disease.

About 60,000 kits — which include the pipes, mouthpieces, alcohol swabs and sticks used to push crack out of the inside of a pipe — are to be distributed at five locations during an eight-month trial period, Postmedia News reported.

The glass pipes are heat-resistant and shatterproof, which should reduce the risk of injury to users’ lips and mouths. Such injuries can make users more susceptible to diseases including HIV and Hepatitis B and C, experts say.

Trudi Beutel, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said the $60,000 program comes as crack is gaining in popularity.

“What this boils down to is it’s about disease prevention,” Beutel said. “It’s about preventing more communicable diseases which land these people in hospital on a frequent basis and clog up emergency rooms.”

The program also will help health officials determine the number of crack users in Vancouver and enable the officials to see whether distributing the kits proves an effective way to reach users and help get them into treatment, Beutel said.

But David Brener, director of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, criticized the program.

“Programs like this ignore the problems of addiction,” Brener said. “All this does is aid and abet. What we should do is put that same amount of money into treatment and prevention because treatment and prevention work.”

Skier killed in British Columbia avalanche

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A skier buried by an avalanche in British Columbia died Friday — the second skier in two days to die in of an avalanche in the area, authorities said.

The victim Friday, one of four people who had been buried by the human-triggered avalanche about 22 miles southeast of Revelstoke, was on a heli-skiing excursion in which downhill skiing is accessed by a helicopter, not a ski lift, the Revelstoke Times Review reported.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the victim was not from the Revelstoke area, in southeastern British Columbia.

On Thursday, a veteran skier with the Whistler ski patrol died north of Pemberton, B.C., after being swept through rough terrain and trees in an avalanche, Postmedia News reported.

RCMP identified the victim as Duncan MacKenzie, 30, of Whistler.

Postmedia News said avalanche warnings had been in effect since Wednesday.

Gingrich says Palin could be running mate

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he would consider former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a potential running mate.

Gingrich also said Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, would be an ideal candidate for energy secretary, The Hill reported.

During a conference call Wednesday with conservative voters held by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Gingrich was asked if he would consider Palin as a running mate.

“She is certainly one of the people you would look at. I am a great admirer of hers and she was a remarkable reform governor of Alaska, she’s somebody who I think brings a great deal to the possibility of helping in government and that would be one of the possibilities,” Gingrich said.

Pa. hospital no longer hiring smokers

DANVILLE, Pa., Dec. 31 (UPI) — A Pennsylvania hospital will begin screening job applicants for nicotine early next year, claiming it will not hire smokers, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Geisinger Health System, a hospital in the eastern town of Danville, will put its no-nicotine policy into effect Feb. 1, 2012, CNN reported.

Applicants who test positive for nicotine will be offered help to quit smoking and are encouraged to reapply in six months, said spokeswoman Marcy Marshall.

The move is part of a plan to make the hospital staff smoke free, Marshall said. The plan is not retroactive, protecting existing staff members who smoke.

“We wanted to create a culture of wellness, and the testing was just a part of the overall mission,” said Dr. Paul Terpeluk, medical director of Employee Health Services in Cleveland.

For some, the policy has encouraged behavioral changes.

“I told them I wanted to quit the right way,” said Cleveland Clinic receptionist Marti Auner, who said she was a 15-year smoker. “I wanted to finish my patches, and they held a job for me for a month.”

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the measure is commonly used to reduce potential future healthcare costs.

Dr. Steven Bernstein, a professor at Yale University, added smokers take breaks more often, reducing hours worked.