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Briefs

Senior Syrian official joins rebels

– Syria’s wounded interior minister cut short his treatment at a Beirut hospital Wednesday and returned home for fear of being arrested by Lebanese authorities, while Syria’s chief of military police defected to the opposition, becoming one of the highest-ranking officers to switch sides.

The twin developments reflected the deepening isolation of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which has suffered setbacks on the battlefield as well.

In the latest challenge, rebels launched a massive attack on a military base in the northern province of Idlib after laying siege to it for weeks.

The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, becomes one of the most senior members of Assad’s regime to join the opposition during the 21-month-old revolt against his authoritarian rule.

Hawaii chooses Inouye replacement

Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has been appointed to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced the appointment after receiving a list of three candidates from the state Democratic Party on Wednesday.

Inouye died Dec. 17 of respiratory complications at age 88. He had sent Abercrombie a letter that day, saying his last wish was for U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him.

Schatz will serve until an election is held in 2014. Had Hanabusa been appointed, there would have been a special election to fill her seat.

Court justice denies companies’ request

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday denied a request to block part of the federal health care law that requires employee health care plans to provide insurance coverage for the morning-after pill and similar emergency contraception.

Hobby Lobby Stores and a sister company, Mardel Inc., sued the government, claiming the mandate violates the religious beliefs of its owners.

In an opinion, Sotomayor said the stores fail to satisfy the demanding legal standard for blocking the requirement on an emergency basis. She said the companies may continue their challenge to the regulations in the lower courts.

Company officials say they must decide whether to violate their faith or face a daily $1.3 million fine beginning Jan. 1 if they ignore the law.

Pre-dawn fire kills 5 in Oklahoma family

A fire that ripped through a home in Oklahoma City before dawn Wednesday killed a woman and her four children and left one man in critical condition, authorities said.

Firefighters who arrived about 6:30 a.m. found the bodies of Jeanine Bonnet, 28, and her children inside the two-story, wood-frame home, Fire Department Maj. Tammy McKinney said.

They found Brian Poletto, 39, outside the burning house while a man who rented a room at the home, David Ruppert, managed to escape the flames.

Polletto was in critical condition later Wednesday with second- and third-degree burns to his back and arms, McKinney said.

“When we got on scene, we had reports that there were children inside,” McKinney said. “The fire was so intense that we could not make entry and had to knock the fire down before we could make entry. That’s when we found the bodies.”

Police Sgt. Gary Knight identified the children as Kara Leon, 3; Matthew Zackary Leon, 5; Samantha Leon, 7; and Natalie Leon, 8.

Mandela released from hospital

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was released Wednesday from a Johannesburg hospital after being treated for a lung infection and having gallstones removed, a government spokesman said. The 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon will continue to receive medical care at home.

Mandela had been in the hospital since Dec. 8.

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