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CDC warns of 'choking game'


At least 82 youths have died from the so-called "choking game," according to the first government count of fatalities from the tragic fad.

In the game, children use dog leashes, bungee cords wrapped around their necks or other means to temporarily cut blood flow to their head. The goal is a dreamlike, floating-in-space feeling when blood rushes back into the brain.

As many as 20 percent of teens and preteens play the game, sometimes in groups, according to some estimates based on a few local studies. But nearly all the deaths were youths who played alone, according to the count complied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC started the research after receiving a letter last year from a Tacoma, Wash., physician who said her 13-year-old son died from playing the game in 2005.

"At the time I had never heard of this," said Dr. Patricia Russell, whose son was found hanging in his closet, but later learned he had talked to a friend about it.

The CDC counted reports from media and advocacy organizations in the years 1995 through 2007, totaling 82 fatalities of children ages 6 to 19. They did not include deaths in which it was unclear if the death was from the choking game or if it was a suicide. They also did not include deaths that involved autoerotic asphyxiation, which is self-strangulation during masturbation and is said to be mainly done by adult males.

The 82 deaths were spread across the country. Nearly 90 percent were boys, at an average age of about 13, the CDC found.

The report is being published this week in a CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

At least eight die in explosion


A week after a deadly sugar refinery explosion, dozens of firefighters continued to battle the obstinate blaze Thursday and the death toll rose to at least eight.

Michael Kelly Fields, 40, died early Thursday at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, spokeswoman Beth Frits said. Sixteen other workers remained hospitalized there, 14 of them in critical condition, she said.

Seven other people have been found dead in the rubble at the at the Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Port Wentworth, and one worker remained missing.

Sugar dust is thought to be the cause of the Feb. 7 blast. Emergency crews were able to snuff out the fire at the plant's main building Wednesday, but the blaze persisted at the refinery's 80-foot silos.

Local crews had to call in a specialized team with powerful equipment to assault the silo fires, where thick masses of molten sugar were still smoldering even after a helicopter dumped thousands of gallons of water.

"They're still working on the fire, still trying to put it out," said Chatham Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Courtney Cunningham.

Emergency workers were able to pull a seventh body out of the second-floor break room Wednesday. Authorities believe the last missing person is in a section of the same room, which is still littered with wreckage.

The refinery is on a 160-acre site on the Savannah River upstream from Savannah. The plant is 872,000 square feet and about 12 percent of it was destroyed, company spokesman Steve Behm said.

U.S. addresses ship pollution

The Bush administration is making headway with other nations in setting new global standards to reduce dangerous emissions from giant diesel-burning ships that are polluting U.S. ports, a senior environmental official said Thursday. An emergency room physician described a "diesel death zone" around major U.S. seaports, with higher cancer rates and other health risks.

"International standards for pollution from ship engines, written mostly by the shipping industry, are so lax as to be meaningless," Dr. John Miller, an emergency room physician from San Pedro, Calif., told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

That panel is considering legislation to sharply curb emissions from the largest cargo carriers.

Bryan Wood-Thomas, an associate director at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the Bush administration favors pursuing a new global standard instead of imposing U.S.-specific rules. The agency is making progress on U.S. proposals to reduce pollutants and impose strict standards where air quality is worst, he said.

The administration is under pressure from Congress and local environmental regulators to enact its own regulations instead of waiting for the U.N. International Maritime Organization to reach an anti-pollution agreement. The EPA plans to issue its rules in 2009, after expected decisions by the global shipping group.

Astronauts focus on Columbus lab


With two of their three spacewalks completed, the astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex focused Thursday on getting the new Columbus lab up and running.

NASA extended Atlantis' mission by a day on Wednesday to give the crew more time to work on the lab, Europe's main contribution to the international space station.

Computer problems that had hindered the activation process were fixed by Thursday, and the space station crew hoped to be able to begin science operations as soon as Atlantis departs next week.

"For me, it's still hard to believe that it's real," French astronaut Leopold Eyharts told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Space Agency chief Jean-Jacques Dordain in a Thursday broadcast from inside Columbus.

Speaking in German, Merkel said she is very happy that Europe has increased its participation in space station research.

"We are now acquiring more knowledge, and this also brings more respect for what we're doing," she said.

Merkel had several questions for German astronaut Hans Schlegel, including one about how he is feeling, an apparent reference to the illness that forced NASA to pull him from Monday's spacewalk to install Columbus.

Schlegel, 56, has declined to discuss his condition and did not mention it in his answer, instead talking about how perfectly the Columbus module is working.

Oil secrets stolen in Brazil

SAO PAULO, Brazil &

Important information has been stolen from Brazil's state-run oil company, an official said Thursday, and one news site reported it was related to major gas and oil finds.

Petroleo Brasileiro SA gave no details about the stolen information, but a spokeswoman who would not give her name &

in keeping with company policy &

said it was important.

Brazil's Terra Web site reported that a hard drive and two notebooks were missing after they were supposed to have been transported from an offshore platform to the company's exploration headquarters in the city of Macae near Rio de Janeiro.

Terra, without citing sources, reported that the missing information covered recent deep-water discoveries of oil and natural gas so large that they led Brazilian officials to predict that the nation could eventually join the ranks of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Terra said Petrobras told it that the theft involved "material and equipment that contains important information about the company."

Petrobras late last year announced the discovery of an ultra-deep Atlantic Ocean field called Tupi which it estimated could have as much of 8 billion barrels light crude. The chief executive of Britain's BG Group PLC, which also has a stake in the field, said this month that the field's production could reach — million barrels of oil equivalent a day when fully developed.

The Brazilian company last month it had discovered a huge natural gas reserve off the coast of Rio de Janeiro that could be as big as the recently discovered Tupi oil field, but did not provide detailed potential production figures.

Quake rattles East Africa

KIGALI, Rwanda &

A 5.4 magnitude earthquake in East Africa killed at least one person Thursday and injured dozens of others, including 16 school children, local officials said.

An elderly woman was killed when her house collapsed in western Rwanda, said Elam Karara, a disaster management official for the Rwandan government. Twenty-one others were injured, including the pupils.

The area is part of Africa's Great Rift Valley, which includes a seismically active fault line. Thursday's quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said had a magnitude of 5.4, was the third to hit the region this month.

"The houses that came down are mainly those devastated by the February — earthquake," said Mayor Jean-Pierre Tuturatsinze of Rusizi district in western Rwanda.

In neighboring Congo, the South Kivu governor's office said at least 44 people were injured but no fatalities were reported. Thursday's quake struck about 15 miles north of the Congolese city of Bukavu.

Princess Di probe questioned


The ex-police chief who led a three-year British investigation into Princess Diana's death on Thursday denied trying to hide vital evidence about the Paris car crash.

John Stevens, the former chief of London's Metropolitan Police, had published a report in 2006 concluding that there was no conspiracy to kill Diana or her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed.

The couple and their driver died after their car crashed into a pillar in a Paris tunnel in 1997. A coroner's jury is now investigating the death in a London court.

A lawyer for Fayed's father, Mohammed Al Fayed, suggested Thursday that Stevens tried to hide evidence that showed Diana feared for her life &

a note written by Diana's lawyer, Lord Mishcon, that laid out her fears of a conspiracy to kill her in a car crash.

Mishcon gave the note to police in confidence after she died, and it was passed to the coroner overseeing the inquest after Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, disclosed a similar note to the British media in 2003.

Michael Mansfield, Al Fayed's attorney, said Mishcon's note might have stayed in a police safe were it not for Burrell's revelations.

Stevens denied trying to conceal the note.

"You are making the allegation that this was never going to be made available to the coroner. That is wrong, he said.

The inquest, which must be held when someone dies violently, unexpectedly or of unknown causes, began last year after French and British police inquiries concluded that the crash was an accident.

Al Fayed, who previously dismissed Stevens' report as "garbage," alleges that his son and the princess were murdered.

Plot uncovered to kill P.I. leader

MANILA, Philippines &

Militants linked to al-Qaida plotted to assassinate the Philippine president and bomb foreign embassies, officials said Thursday.

Military chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said the assassination plot allegedly was hatched by the extremist Abu Sayyaf group and its Indonesia-based ally, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Opposition groups dismissed the allegation as government scare tactics to prevent people from joining protests Friday to demand President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's resignation.

Brig. Gen. Romeo Prestoza, head of the Presidential Security Group, said police uncovered the plot last week. "It's not only the president who is the target, but also other people ... and embassies," he said without offering specifics.

The alleged plot was also to involve a sniper shooting the president, Esperon said.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said officials there were aware of media reports that foreign embassies had been targeted but would not comment further. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

The officials did not specify when the attacks were expected to occur. But Prestoza said Arroyo's attendance at an alumni homecoming of the Philippine Military Academy on Saturday in northern Baguio city has been canceled and the rest of her schedule was "under assessment."

Kurds sign oil agreement with S. Korea

SEOUL, South Korea &

The leader of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government said that an energy agreement signed Thursday with South Korean companies does not violate Iraq's basic law.

"It was within the constitutional rights," Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters in Seoul.

Iraq's parliament has been locked in a dispute over who has the final say in managing the Middle Eastern country's oil and gas fields. The disagreement has delayed passage of a national oil and gas law designed to regulate foreign investment.

Frustrated with the delay, the Kurds have signed more than a dozen contracts with international oil companies. The Iraq Oil Ministry considers the agreements illegal.

The Iraqi federal government suspended crude exports to SK Energy Co. in January on grounds that South Korean companies had not abandoned a deal signed with the Kurdistan administration to develop a disputed oil field.

Earlier Thursday, a group of South Korean companies, led by Korea National Oil Corp., signed an initial agreement with the Kurdistan authority to develop energy projects.

Under the deal, a consortium led by KNOC will have the right to explore and develop four oil fields in the Kurdistan region, said a KNOC official who spoke to Dow Jones Newswires on condition of anonymity. The fields are expected to have reserves of — billion to 2 billion barrels.

The agreement also calls for a separate consortium to participate in projects to develop infrastructure in the Kurdish region, the state-run oil developer said in a statement.

Barzani wants Iraq's central government to reconsider its decision to halt oil supplies to South Korea and said he will visit Baghdad after he leaves Seoul.