News Wrap: California wildfire advances; horrors reported in Syrian prisons

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Hotshot firefighters build a fire line after the fire jumped Lytle Creek Road during the Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County, California, U.S. August 17, 2016.  REUTERS/Patrick T Fallon - RTX2LPBH

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HARI SREENIVASAN: A fast-moving inferno burning 60 miles east of Los Angeles flared even more today. Some 1,500 firefighters are battling the massive wildfire that’s only four percent contained. They dropped fire retardant on parts of the San Gabriel Mountains to help control the blaze. It’s already charred more than 49 square miles since Tuesday, 82,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nearly 18,000 detainees have died in Syrian government prisons since that country’s uprising began back in 2011. That’s according to a new report out today from Amnesty International. The group interviewed abuse survivors who described rampant torture, disease, and death at the detention centers run by Syria’s intelligence agencies. Amnesty warned the actual death toll is likely much higher, since thousands of detainees disappeared while in custody.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The United Nations has admitted for the first time to playing a role in Haiti’s initial choler outbreak. Some 10,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands more were sickened. The disease is believed to have spread in 2010 while U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, were helping with the relief effort after the devastating earthquake.

A short time ago, I spoke with journalist Jonathan Katz live on Facebook, who broke this story. He’s the author of the book “The Big truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”. He’s also been covering the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

One of our Facebook commentators asked, “what took the U.N. so long to admit its role?”

JONATHAN KATZ, Journalist: The answer is that nobody likes admitting when they’re wrong, especially when admitting that you’re wrong can cost you billions of dollars and your job. I think they were hoping that this could go away. There was a perception at the beginning when cholera first broke out, again, six years ago, that sanitation was bad and Haiti, Haiti’s a country that’s had lots of different kinds of diseases in the past and there was this disaster that, of course, we now know had nothing to do with it but it was the enormous disaster that gotten the world’s attention nine months before. And I think the U.N. really felt that it could sort of skate by on these expectations that people that Haiti is just sort of a dirty disease place and diseases just happened and they thought they would get away with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch my full interview on our “NewsHour” Facebook page.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A string off bombings in Turkey has killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 220 others. Militants struck three separate sites across the south and east within hours of each other. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Kurdish separatists for the attacks. But he also accused followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey says orchestrated last month’s failed coup.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (translated): One does not need to be a prophet to see that Fethullah Gulen’s organization is behind the recent attacks in terms of information sharing and encouragement. Turkey is facing joint attacks by various terrorist organizations who act with the same motive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Erdogan again demanded the U.S. extradite Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The State Department acknowledged today a $400 million cash payment the U.S. made to Iran last January was contingent on the release of American prisoners. “The Wall Street Journal” first reported the two events were specifically timed to one another yesterday. The money was owed to Iran in the wake of a failed arms deal dating back to 1979.

Today, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. would not let Tehran take control of the cash until after the three U.S. citizens had left Iran.

JOHN KIRBY, State Department Spokesman: We, of course, sought to retain maximum leverage until after American citizens were released. That was our top priority. This wasn’t a case of ransom. And again, I need to remind you all, while a little bit of the tick tock here that’s driven out you might find new and salacious — there’s really nothing new here in the story about how we got those American out and how we leveraged opportunities here that were coming together at the same time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Republicans have long accused the Obama administration of paying ransom for the U.S. prisoners. They have vowed to hold hearings on the issue when they return from their summer break.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Justice Department today announced it will end its use of privately- operated prisons. A recent report from the department’s inspector general found that they are less secure and less effective compared to federally-controlled prisons. The government began using the private facilities back in the 1990s amid a prison overcrowding crisis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Police in Brazil now insist the four U.S. Olympians who claimed they were robbed at gunpoint in Rio lied. They allege the swimmers, including gold medalist Ryan Lochte, were involved in a dispute at a gas station after causing some minor damage to its bathroom. Brazilian TV broadcast surveillance video that purports to show the group being confronted by armed security after the incident. One guard pulled out his gun. Brazilian police are recommending charges.

FERNANDO VELOSO, Chief, Rio de Janeiro Civil Police (translated): In theory, they can be charged with giving false testimony and vandalism, in theory. They stopped at the gas station, they went to the toilets, and one or more than one, we are still investigating that, started vandalizing inside the toilets of the gas station.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Police say at the time the group did offer to s pay for the damage, three of the swimmers are still in Brazil, while Lochte returned to the U.S. earlier this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was word today homegrown Zika cases have now been reported in the popular tourist destination of Miami Beach, Florida.

Unnamed state health officials told “The Miami Herald” that a handful of cases have been discovered there. The first instances of locally-transmitted Zika had previously been concentrated in a neighborhood north of downtown Miami.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Clinton Foundation will no longer accept foreign or corporate donations should Hillary Clinton be elected president. “The Associated Press” reports former President Bill Clinton, who established the non-profit organization, briefed staffers on the decision today. In the event of a Clinton victory, it will only accept contributions from U.S. citizens and independent charities.

On Wall Street today, stocks were up slightly after rising oil prices gave energy shares a boost. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained more than 23 points to close at 18,597. The NASDAQ rose 11 points, and the S&P 500 added nearly five.

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