Total sign-ups for Obama health plans estimated at 2M as December surge propels federal market

HONOLULU (AP) -- A December surge propelled health care sign-ups through the government’s rehabilitated website past the 1 million mark, the Obama administration said Sunday, reflecting new vigor for the problem-plagued federal insurance market.

Combined with numbers for state-run markets due in January, that should put total enrollment in the new private insurance plans under President Barack Obama’s health law at about 2 million people through the end of the year, independent experts said.

That would be about two-thirds of the administration’s original goal of signing up 3.3 million by Dec. 31, a significant improvement given the technical problems that crippled the federal market during much of the fall. The overall goal remains to enroll 7 million people by March 31.

"It looks like current enrollment is around 2 million despite all the issues," said Dan Mendelson, CEO of Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. "It was a very impressive showing for December."

The administration said that of the more than 1.1 million people now enrolled in the federal insurance exchange, nearly 1 million signed up in December. The majority came days before a pre-Christmas deadline for coverage to start in January. Compare that with a paltry 27,000 in October, the federal website’s first, error-prone month.

16 die in suicide bombing at railway station in southern
Russia, scores wounded

MOSCOW (AP) -- A suicide bomber struck a busy railway station in southern Russia on Sunday, killing at least 15 other people and wounding scores more, officials said, in a stark reminder of the threat Russia is facing as it prepares to host February’s Olympics in Sochi.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in Volgograd, but it came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for new attacks against civilian targets in Russia, including the Sochi Games.

Suicide bombings have rocked Russia for years, but many have been contained to the North Caucasus, the center of an insurgency seeking an Islamist state in the region. Until recently Volgograd was not a typical target, but the city formerly known as Stalingrad has now been struck twice in two months -- suggesting militants may be using the transportation hub as a renewed way of showing their reach outside their restive region.

Volgograd, which lies close to volatile Caucasus provinces, is 550 miles south of Moscow and about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, a Black Sea resort flanked by the North Caucasus Mountains.

$0.60 for cake, $1.80 for soap, $3 for broom: Al-Qaida records
all expenses, runs like company

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- The convoy of cars bearing the black al-Qaida flag came at high speed, and the manager of the modest grocery store thought he was about to get robbed.

Mohamed Djitteye rushed to lock his till and cowered behind the counter. He was dumbfounded when instead, the al-Qaida commander gently opened the grocery’s glass door and asked for a pot of mustard. Then he asked for a receipt.

Confused and scared, Djitteye didn’t understand. So the jihadist repeated his request. Could he please have a receipt for the $1.60 purchase?

This transaction in northern Mali shows what might seem an unusual preoccupation for a terror group: Al-Qaida is obsessed with documenting the most minute expenses.

In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the extremists assiduously tracked their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue.

Feeling snubbed by U.S., Saudis strengthen ties elsewhere, find unexpected alignment with France

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Increasingly vocal in its frustration over U.S. policies in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is strengthening ties elsewhere, seeking out an alignment that will bolster its position after it was pushed to the sidelines this year.

It may find a solution in France, whose president is ending the year with 24 hours of high-level meetings with the Saudi leadership in a visit intended to showcase commercial and diplomatic strength.

With an entourage of French executives from the lucrative defense and energy sectors, President Francois Hollande arrived Sunday in Riyadh for a flurry of accords and contracts that have been in the works for months. The two countries also find themselves unexpectedly aligned in resistance, if not outright opposition, to U.S. policy on Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, recently described the policies of some partners toward Iran and Syria as a "dangerous gamble," while calling for the kingdom to be more assertive internationally after decades of operating in diplomatic shadows.

The men cannot leave: Fear pulses through South Sudan refugee camp 2 weeks after violence

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- The women and girls leave the main United Nations refugee camp here during the day. The men do not. To exit is to risk death, they say.

Whether true or not, such claims show the level of fear that pulses through the main U.N. camp for internally displaced people here two weeks after violence broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and a spiraling series of ethnically-based attacks coursed through the nation, killing at least 1,000 people.

Some 25,000 people live in two hastily arranged camps in Juba. The government says those in the camps -- who are mostly from the Nuer tribe -- can leave and will be perfectly safe. The men here do not believe it.

"It is very hard to go outside because there are people watching," said Wuor Khor, a 29-year-old graduate of Juba University. "They follow you wherever you are going and then they kill you."

They, in this case, are members of the Dinka, the majority tribe from which President Salva Kiir hails. In this camp the Nuer, South Sudan’s second largest tribe, feel part of a targeted minority after former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, was accused of a coup attempt on Dec. 15 and fighting -- often ethnically motivated -- broke out.

Saudi Arabia to give Lebanon $3 billion to support the national army and buy French weapons

BEIRUT (AP) -- Saudi Arabia has pledged $3 billion to Lebanon to help strengthen the country’s armed forces and purchase weapons from France, Lebanon’s president said Sunday, calling it the biggest grant ever for the nation’s military.

Michel Sleiman, who made the surprise announcement in a televised national address, did not provide any further details. The Lebanese army has struggled to contain a rising tide of violence linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria, a conflict that has inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon and threatened the country’s stability.

"The Saudi king decided to give a generous, well-appreciated grant to Lebanon amounting to $3 billion for the Lebanese army, which will allow it to buy new and modern weapons," Sleiman said. "The king pointed out that the weapons will be bought from France quickly, considering the historical relations that tie it to Lebanon and the military cooperation between the two countries."

Sleiman said he hoped Paris would quickly meet the initiative, and help the Lebanese army with arms, training and maintenance.

French President Francois Hollande, who was in Riyadh Sunday for talks with Saudi King Abdullah, said that France would help if requested to do so.

Thai facilities welcome Europeans with Alzheimer’s; relatives say care cheaper, more personal

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AP) -- Residents of this facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease toss around a yellow ball and laugh under a cascade of water with their caregivers, in a swimming pool ringed by palm trees and wind chimes. Susanna Kuratli, once a painter of delicate oils, swims a lap and smiles.

Watching is her husband, Ulrich, who has a heart-rending decision: to leave his wife of 41 years in this facility 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) from home, or to bring her back to Switzerland.

Their homeland treats the elderly as well as any nation on Earth, but Ulrich Kuratli says the care here in northern Thailand is not only less expensive but more personal. In Switzerland, "You have a cold, old lady who gives you pills and tells you to go to bed," he says.

Kuratli and his three grown children have given themselves six months to decide while the retired software developer lives alongside his 65-year-old wife in Baan Kamlangchay -- "Home for Care from the Heart." Patients live in individual houses within a Thai community, are taken to local markets, temples and restaurants, each with three caretakers working in rotation to provide personal around-the-clock care. The monthly $3,800 cost is a third of what basic institutional care would come to in Switzerland.

Kuratli is not yet sure how he’ll care for Susanna, who used to produce a popular annual calendar of her paintings. But he’s leaning toward keeping her in Thailand, possibly for the rest of her life.

Among Cuban exiles, an old holiday toast to ‘Next year in Cuba’ goes steadily silent

MIAMI (AP) -- In their first years of exile from Cuba in the 1960s, Gustavo Pirez Firmat’s family uttered the toast as a wish they anxiously waited to fulfill.

Pirez Firmat’s parents and grandparents would proclaim "Next year in Cuba" as they lifted glasses of scotch at Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The words were uttered by thousands of Cubans who fled after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and settled in Miami and other cities around the world. In those days, they believed it was only a matter of time before the revolution would blow over and they could all return to their island home.

More than five decades have now passed. Pirez Firmat’s parents are dead. He no longer makes the toast his father recited hopefully until his death in 2002.

"It would be too painful to do it today," said Pirez Firmat, an author and professor at Columbia University.