U.S. Says Coalition Airstrike Accidentally Hit Syrian Army Positions

Syrian government soldiers walk in the damaged government-held side of Aleppo on Sept. 16. Initially, U.N. officials had observed calm in war-ravaged Aleppo during the recent cease-fire, but Saturday’s violence in the country’s eastern regions spells ill news for the truce. Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has halted an attack in eastern Syria amid fears that the airstrike hit Syrian soldiers in the region on Saturday. The attack, which had been targeting Islamic State militants, hit Syrian soldiers instead, according to the Russian military.

“The coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military,” U.S. Central Command announced in a statement.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov says he has been informed by Syrian authorities that at least 62 soldiers were killed and more than 100 were wounded in the attack in Deir al-Zour, according to The Associated Press. The news service notes that, if confirmed, the casualties would mark the first time the U.S. has directly struck Syrian government forces during the country’s long-running civil war.

Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which could convene as soon as Saturday to discuss the air raid.

The violence comes just over a week after a cease-fire had been announced in Syria — and fewer than six days since that cease-fire went into effect. The agreement had been brokered by Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and the U.S., which supports the opposition forces.

Up to this point, that cease-fire had shown mixed results. Fighting had “declined substantially” since the start of the truce and even battle-ravaged Aleppo had “dramatically improved” with the onset of tenuous calm, according to Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria. Still, as NPR’s Merrit Kennedy reported, humanitarian efforts to deliver aid to besieged areas had stalled.

“The bad news is that we are not using this window of opportunity so far to reach all of these places with humanitarian assistance,” Jan Egeland, adviser to the special envoy, said at a press briefing Thursday.

Saturday’s violence presents another threat to the stability of the cease-fire. Though U.S. military officials say they had informed their Russian counterparts of plans for attack, adding that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Konashenkov laid blame for the deaths squarely with the U.S.

Even if the U.S. attack on Syrian forces was an error, Konashenkov said, it was a result of “stubborn reluctance by the American side to coordinate its action against terrorist groups in Syria with Russia.”

James Longman of the BBC adds: “Russia has said militants from IS took the opportunity [of the strike on Syrian military] to launch an offensive immediately afterwards.”

“The coalition will review this strike and the circumstances surrounding it to see if any lessons can be learned,” U.S. Central Command said in its statement.

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Mike Pence Releases Medical Information, Has 'Very Good And Strong Heart'

Mike Pence speaks to Republicans at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 8. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence is in “excellent general and cardiovascular health,” according to a letter from his doctor that was released by his campaign, Saturday.

The letter, written by Michael Busk, a physician at St. Vincent Health, Wellness and Preventative Care Institute in Indianapolis, goes on to say that the 57-year old Pence is “medically able to maintain [his] high level of professional work and [his] physical activity programs without limitations.”

It also noted that Pence has a “very good and strong heart,” and that he regularly exercises by cycling, walking and climbing stairs.

Pence’s release comes after a week of intense discussion about the health of the candidates on both tickets. The Indiana governor’s running mate, presidential nominee Donald Trump, discussed his health on television earlier this week, with controversial celebrity TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz. He also released a one-page summary of his health from his personal physician, declaring that he is in “excellent physical health.”

Both Democratic nominees, Hilary Clinton and Time Kaine, made disclosures this week that declared them healthy and fit for office.

The health of all of the candidates has been a hot topic since Clinton fell ill and had to leave a Sept. 11 memorial event last weekend. Her campaign later revealed that the former Secretary of State had been diagnosed with a mild pneumonia.

After a few days of rest, Clinton returned to the campaign trail Thursday.

She released a two-page letter from her doctor explaining her recent health history. But that didn’t stop the Trump campaign from taking a swing at the Democrat, by noting in Trump’s medical release that the 70-year old Republican nominee was healthy enough to campaign “uninterrupted.”

If elected, Trump would be the oldest first-term president in history. Clinton, at 69, would be the second oldest.

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Egypt Freezes Assets Of Five Prominent Human Rights Defenders

Investigative journalist Hossam Baghat (center), who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, leaves a courtroom at the Cairo Criminal Court in March. Mohamed Elraai/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mohamed Elraai/AP

A Cairo criminal court has ruled today to freeze the assets of five prominent human rights defenders — another step in the ongoing crackdown against the government’s critics.

Those impacted are investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Gamal Eid, the director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information; Bahey el Din Hassan, founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Mostafa al-Hassan, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre; and Abdel Hafiz el-Tayel, director of the Egyptian Center on the Right to Education.

The organizations involved are cornerstones of the Egyptian human rights community, which is finding it increasingly difficult to operate amid increasingly repressive measures from the government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. These human rights defenders are accused of using foreign funding to destabilize the country – while they say they are simply carrying out normal human rights work.

The decision freezes their personal and organizational bank accounts, according to Amnesty International, though it adds that the “status of EIPR and ANHRI’s assets remains unclear.” They could face prosecution and up to 25 years in prison.

“Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, calling the proceedings “repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure.”

The ruling is one part of a planned criminal prosecution against human rights workers and organizations, and is provisional ahead of a final verdict. The case was first opened in 2011 – and the list of the state’s targets continues to expand.

Over the past three months, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the case’s investigative judges “have issued at least four new travel bans (bringing the total up to 12), added a further 9 individuals to the asset freeze trial (bringing the total up to 13) and summoned at least 5 further NGO staff for interrogation (bringing the known total up to 17 human rights defenders interrogated about their human rights work).”

The organizations impacted today are vowing to continue their work. EIPR called on “political forces and popular movements that believe in the values of freedom and social justice to stand in solidarity with the Egyptian human rights movement and make every effort to ensure the movement can continue to play its vital role” in a statement after the ruling.

Sissi and the military-led government launched this sweeping crackdown after the 2013 ouster of democratically-elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Under the auspices of fighting terrorism, the government first targeted Morsi’s supporters and has expanded to include essentially all critics of the government.

“The government’s brutal crackdown on dissent shows no sign of stopping, with enforced disappearances and torture becoming a matter of state policy,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said in a statement. “Egypt needs these critical voices more than ever.”

As NPR’s Leila Fadel has reported, “many activists in Egypt say the country is going through the most repressive time in its modern history.”

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America's First Black President Nears The End Of A History-Making Run

The president listens during a meeting with staff in the Rose Garden on Oct. 8, 2014. Pete Souza/The White House hide caption

toggle caption Pete Souza/The White House

Jordan Weaver was just a kid when Barack Obama was elected eight years ago. But she’ll never forget that November night.

“My biggest memory is us in my living room,” said Weaver, who grew up in Harrisburg, Penn. “My mom was crying. She was so happy that a president could be African-American and people accepted him. You could just see that everyone was so excited.”

Eight years later, Weaver joined thousands of people who turned out to see Obama speak in Philadelphia earlier this week.

“I don’t think people give him enough credit, but I love him,” Weaver, now a student at Temple University, said.

Jamie Littles brought her young son to the outdoor rally near Philadelphia’s Museum of Art so he could see the president for himself.

“Just so he can get a better understanding of who Obama is and what he means in history for black Americans,” Littles said.

For Chuck Coleman, as well, it means a lot.

“For me as an African-American male, it’s just a proud moment,” said Coleman. “To see him serve and to raise our country to a level he was able to perform.”

Coleman paused, though, and cleared his throat when asked how his own life has changed during Obama’s been in office.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think any one person can change all the conditions in this country. He’s done the best that he can do under the circumstances,” Coleman said.

L: Shaunna Stribling kisses her daughter Rajha Davis, 6, in Denver after Barack Obama won the presidential election on Nov. 4, 2008. R: Obama supporters celebrate his win in Birmingham, Ala. L: John Moore R: Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption L: John Moore R: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A number of people at the rally cited the Affordable Care Act as an example of tangible ways in which their lives have improved under Obama.

“I didn’t have insurance and now I have insurance, because I had pre-existing issues,” said Nicky Robertson. “So now I’m thankful. Thank Barack.”

Obamacare has pushed the rate of health insurance in the United States to record highs. And African-Americans have seen some of the biggest gains.

High school and college graduation rates for blacks have also improved on Obama’s watch.

But other measures are less encouraging. Black unemployment has come down since the worst of the recession but it still tops 8 percent, more than three percentage points above the national average. Homeownership rates for African-Americans have taken a hit. And while the average black family’s income rose more than 4 percent last year, the income gap between African-American and white families is as wide today as it was four decades ago.

“Black America is like a caboose on a train,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “When the train speeds up, the caboose speeds up. But it’s still the caboose.”

Each year, the Urban League issues a report card on “The State of Black America” and Morial says it’s clear Obama’s presidency has not been “a panacea.”

Donald Trump has tried to exploit lingering problems by urging African-Americans to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party.

“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” Trump said last month at a rally in Dimondale, Mich. “What the hell do you have to lose?”

There’s little evidence that many African-Americans are accepting Trump’s invitation; Obama’s approval rating among blacks is 90 percent.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Dimondale, Mich. on Aug. 19. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

toggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP

Morial said he would have liked to see more targeted help for African-Americans. He suggested a jobs bill Obama pushed in 2011 would have helped. But as often happened, Obama faced stiff resistance from congressional Republicans and a sizeable public backlash.

“It has also got to be said that Barack Obama’s election spurred a negative reaction,” Morial said. “The rise of the hard right, the Tea Party, the birther movement, to some extent the rise of Donald Trump.”

Obama has tried to avoid any appearance of favoring African-Americans, telling Black Enterprise magazine, for example, he’s not the president of black America but rather the United States. In his second term, though, Obama has sometimes served as a kind of ambassador, offering whites and others a window into the African-American experience.

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” Obama said after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida who shot and killed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin. “That includes me.”

President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office on May 8, 2009. Pete Souza/The White House hide caption

toggle caption Pete Souza/The White House

The effort to help young black men with the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and the push to overhaul the criminal justice system will likely remain priorities for Obama long after he leaves the White House.

After nearly eight years, a black president is no longer a novelty. Most Americans have grown accustomed to it, even if not everyone is comfortable with it. So it’s easy to lose sight of just how barrier-breaking Obama’s election was. A comic roast for the president earlier this year offered a serious reminder.

“When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback,” comedian Larry Wilmore recalled at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April. “Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team. And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.”

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Fresh Air Weekend: Comic Jeff Ross; Oliver Stone's 'Snowden'; Soccer's Abby Wambach

Jeff Ross (right) roasts TV analyst and former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw at the ESPN Super Bowl Roast in January 2015 in Phoenix, Ariz. Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Friars Club hide caption

toggle caption Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Friars Club

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

Having Thick Skin Is A ‘Survival Technique,’ Says Comic Jeff Ross: Ross says he learned to “dish it out and take it” as a kid in Newark, N.J. He says that ideally a celebrity roast is “like a party where everybody goes and has a good time.”

Oliver Stone Puts A Melodramatic Spin On ‘Snowden’ And The Surveillance State: Stone’s new film presents the exiled former NSA contractor as a heroic whistle-blower. Critic David Edelstein says movie’s take on Snowden is entertaining — but also a bit one-sided.

Why Abby Wambach Doesn’t Want To Be Known ‘Just As A Soccer Player’: Wambach scored 184 goals, more than any other man or woman in the history of international soccer. Still, she knew that someday that identity would end — and “what then?” Her new memoir is Forward.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Having Thick Skin Is A ‘Survival Technique,’ Says Comic Jeff Ross

Oliver Stone Puts A Melodramatic Spin On ‘Snowden’ And The Surveillance State

Why Abby Wambach Doesn’t Want To Be Known ‘Just As A Soccer Player’

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For U.S. Minority Students In China, The Welcome Comes With Scrutiny

Jeffrey Wood has been studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. He is now preparing for a career as a diplomat. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The relationship between the U.S. and China these days is fraught with political tensions. But both countries are committed to sending more of their young people to study language and culture in each other’s countries — and a component of that is sending more U.S. minority students to China.

That’s both to provide more students of color with the opportunity to study overseas, and to create a student body abroad that is more representative of U.S. diversity.

According to China’s education ministry, 21,975 American students studied in China in 2015.

Jeffrey Wood, a resident of Washington, D.C., is at the forefront of this recent trend.

Wood, 24, returned to Washington this summer after spending a year in Nanjing studying Mandarin, culture and foreign relations at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Wood says that during his sophomore year in high school, in 2009, he wanted to expand his horizons beyond his immediate community. At a teacher’s suggestion, he decided to go on a 6-week intensive Chinese language study program in Beijing. He says he was amazed by the experience and wanted to learn more about China.

I caught up with Wood as he passed through Beijing on his way back home. Just to check out his language skills, I had him order me a jianbing – a kind of Chinese breakfast crepe — from a street vendor. His Mandarin was fluent.

Wood told me that some of the most powerful lessons he learned in China were outside the classroom. One came up last semester.

“There was this detergent ad that was released in China,” he recalls, “which sparked a lot of controversy.”

In the ad, for Qiaobi detergent, a Chinese woman puts a black man in a washing machine and launders him until he turns into a fair-skinned Asian. The company that makes the detergent denied any racist intent, and instead blamed foreign media for overreacting.

While attitudes towards race and skin color are changing, Chinese society has traditionally shown preference for lighter skin color.

Wood says the ad came up in conversations with his Chinese classmates, and he was relieved by their reaction to it.

“Just hearing most of them or all of them talk about it, and say how wrong it was, was very reassuring,” he says.

This time around in China was a lot easier than Wood’s first visit in 2009. The Chinese had less exposure to foreigners — especially minorities — than they do now.

Some of the Chinese people he met in the northeastern city of Harbin back then, he remembers, were openly astonished at the physical differences between themselves and him.

“There was also culture shock of getting different stares and being treated differently,” he says. “So I had people just randomly come up and touch my hair.”

Wood says that never before in his life has he been so closely examined or forced to explain himself to others. This experience, he says, has given him a stronger awareness of his identity.

“Having people say, ‘I’ve never met someone like you before, never met a black American before,’ that’s never happened,” he says. “From that experience until today, I would say I know that I’m a lot more confident in myself. I know who I am.”

Wood now encourages other African-American students to follow in his footsteps. He’s a student ambassador for the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, which promotes student exchanges.

But Wood says that it can be a hard sell. He found, for example, that the number of African-American students taking Chinese language courses has dwindled every year because many students decide to discontinue their Chinese studies.

“They would say, ‘Oh no, like, I think I’m done with Chinese, you know, it was really difficult, I don’t think it’s for me, I have to spend a lot of time [on it],’ ” he explains. “People just kind of give up.”

Wood says the challenge of adapting to a non-Western culture and language also deters many of his classmates from continuing their Chinese studies.

“The typical American study-abroad student is Caucasian, female and from the upper socioeconomic classes,” observes Carola McGiffert, the U.S.-China Strong Foundation president. “And we are working very hard to broaden the community that has opportunities in China.”

McGiffert has helped build relations between historically black colleges and universities and China’s government. She notes that China is now providing hundreds of scholarships specifically geared to African-American and Latino students.

The Chinese now “understand how important diversity is in the American culture, and how important it is to U.S. businesses and government, and they’ve embraced it,” McGiffert says.

What other benefits China sees in diversity are not clear. The Ministry of Education, which gives out the scholarships, declined to speak with NPR.

The past year has not been an easy time for Wood to study in China. He has watched from a distance as African-Americans have demonstrated for equality on college campuses and against police violence toward people of color. He says he felt conflicted as he tried to stay focused on his academic goals in China.

“I want to learn Chinese and understand the culture,” he says, “but then, you know, I feel for my community back home. It’s like a tug of war.”

Wood says there will come a time when he may be able to do more in his own community. But for now, he plans to intern at the State Department and at a U.S. embassy overseas, as he prepares for a career as a diplomat.

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'Shoeless Joe' Author William Patrick Kinsella Dies At 81

Canadian author W.P. Kinsella standing on the baseball field before game five of the 1992 World Series between Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves in Toronto, Ontario. Rusty Kennedy/AP hide caption

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William Patrick Kinsella, the Canadian author whose award-winning book Shoeless Joe was adapted into the beloved film Field of Dreams, had died at the age of 81.

His literary agent Carolyn Swayze issued a statement Friday confirming his death, calling him “a unique, creative and outrageously opinionated man.”

And as NPR’s Rose Friedman tells our Newscast unit, the most famous line he ever wrote was whispered – “If you build it, he will come,” in 1982’s Shoeless Joe.

As Rose explains, the book told the story of “an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, hoping to attract the ghost of a long dead player. The book was made into the movie, Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones, as the man who convinces the farmer to follow his heart.”

Watch a clip here, where the farmer played by Costner first hears the mysterious voice telling him to build a baseball diamond:

YouTube

Kinsella wanted Shoeless Joe to be a “gentle read,” as Rose reported. “I put in no sex, no violence, no obscenity, none of that stuff that sells,” he said,” I wanted to write a book for imaginative readers, an affirmative statement about life.”

He published almost thirty books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and many of them centered on his great love – baseball. “There’s theoretically no distance that a great hitter couldn’t hit the ball or that a great fielder couldn’t run to retrieve it, and that makes for myth and for larger-than-life characters,” Kinsella said in an interview with the CBC.

He also wrote about the indigenous people of Canada, including his first book Dance Me Outside.

His final work, titled Russian Dolls, will be published by next year, according to his agent. She describes the book as a collection of linked stories about a struggling author and his muse, who tells him “dark, dangerously inconsistent stories of her past.”

His biographer Willie Steele told CBC radio that Kinsella was always generous, even when he knew his time was limited. “He essentially told me a couple of weeks ago, ‘You know, I’m not going to be here much longer, so whatever questions you’ve got, let’s get them done,'” Steele said.

He told the news service that in a recent interview, Kinsella reflected, “I’m a storyteller, in that my greatest satisfaction comes from making people laugh and also leaving them with a tear in the corner of their eye.”

Kinsella died of assisted suicide, according to multiple Canadian news outlets.

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