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April 18 2014 1:53 PM

If It Happened There: America Awaits Royal Baby

The latest installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

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WASHINGTON, United States—Though free of monarchy for more than two centuries, Americans this week were strangely fascinated by the news that one of the country’s pre-eminent political families will be producing its next heir. The news has produced baby fever in the nation’s often sensationalist and highly partisan media and sparked a new round of discussion about the role of powerful clans in the nation’s public affairs.

The politics of the world’s second-largest democracy have long been dominated by a handful of influential families. In recent decades, it has often been a brutal contest of wills between two rival clans in particular.

For the past year, however, neither of the country’s most powerful dynasties has had a member serving in the executive mansion or the Cabinet—something that has not happened in 34 years. This week’s news comes at a time when speculation is high that the Clinton dynasty may be angling to take the reins of power once more.

More than two decades ago, the Clintons swept out of the country’s southern heartland—an economically depressed region with a bloody history—to storm the capital. They have dominated the national conversation ever since, as much for family patriarch Bill’s prodigious appetites and often controversial public statements as their fairly staid brand of center-left politics.

After Bill was forced by term limits to surrender power in 2000, his wife, Hillary, entered the national legislature and in 2008 followed in the footsteps of a number of the Western Hemisphere’s first ladies in recent years by running for the presidency herself.

She would have been the first female president of a country that, while highly Westernized in many respects, still has an overwhelmingly male-dominated political culture. In a shocking result, voters rejected the Clintons’ bid to return to the executive mansion and Hillary was forced to settle for a four-year tenure as foreign minister.

The couple’s daughter, Chelsea, grew up in the public eye, and the announcement of her pregnancy this week drew attention from the normally staid broadsheets read by the country’s elite as well the gossip-focused publications more popular with the general public here. The family’s political opponents, meanwhile, griped that the timing of the announcement was not coincidental.

For while the country’s next presidential election is more than two years away, speculation is already running high that Chelsea’s mother will be making another bid to return the family to power. (Unlike nearby Guatemala, America has no law barring spouses of ex-presidents from seeking office themselves.)

At the same time, Chelsea—a frequent presence on a pro-government broadcasting network—has recently suggested that she may have designs on public office herself at some point, raising the possibility that, like the Nehru-Gandhis of India or Aquinos of the Philippines before them, the Clintons could create a multiple-generation political dynasty. (Chelsea’s child will not be eligible to occupy the country’s highest office until the 2052 election.)

Meanwhile, the Clinton restoration may face a challenge from their longtime rivals the Bushes. Jeb, the younger brother of one former president and son of another, has lately been courting the support of the nation’s growing foreign-born population but is mistrusted by many in his party’s hardline nationalist wing.

The Bush family recently welcomed a new member as well, raising the possibility that the bitter feud that has dominated and at times crippled this economically struggling nation’s politics may last decades into the future.   

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April 17 2014 4:23 PM

Are Chemical Weapons Being Used in Syria Again?

What a difference half a year makes. Last August the United States nearly went to war in Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Now, with attention focused largely on Ukraine, the latest reports of the continuing use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country have barely aroused any notice at all.

Granted the two situations are extremely different in both type and severity. The death toll of the Ghouta sarin attack was in the hundreds. The latest attack, which the opposition Violations Documentation Center says took place last Friday in the opposition-controlled village of Kfar Zeita near Damascus and involved chlorine gas dropped in canisters from a helicopter, killed only two, but sickened hundreds of others.

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All the same, chlorine was used as a chemical weapon during World War I and is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and its use—if it was by the government—would certainly violate Syria’s agreement to dismantle and remove its chemical weapons from the country.

Syrian state television, meanwhile, is blaming the attack on the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Eliot Higgins, who at his blog Brown Moses has become a go-to source for information on the weaponry used in the Syrian conflict, says the attack is a rare case of both the government and opposition acknowledging that an attack did take place, but he pokes some holes in the Syrian government’s narratives:  

In the videos and photographs this is specifically described as being dropped from a helicopter. Again, there's no evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra have a helicopter, and considering Kafr Zita has been the focus of Syrian military activity for the past weeks (including the first deployment of BM-30 launched cluster munitions) it seems unlikely the Syrian military would have missed a mystery helicopter flying overhead.  One also has to ask how Syrian State TV could state Chlorine was used without access to the site, a pro-opposition area.

Higgins wonders whether the claims may have been inspired by a widely circulated but highly disputed recent article by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, which alleged that Nusra, not the government, was responsible for the August sarin attacks.

For now, the U.S. is not taking a strong stance on the incident, with U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power calling the reports “unsubstantiated.”

About half of Syria’s chemical stockpile has been removed so far, though the country has missed several of the deadlines imposed by a Russian-brokered deal last August. Chlorine was apparently not on the list of chemical weapons the Syrian government declared.

Having reached what he calls a “turning point” in the ongoing fighting after some recent gains, Assad may be feeling a bit more confident in what he can get away with. 

April 17 2014 2:00 PM

Ukraine Deal Reached

While Vladimir Putin cranked up the rhetoric to maximum hawkishness back in Moscow today, and the situation continued to deteriorate in eastern Ukraine with three pro-Russian militants killed during an apparent attempt to take over a Ukrainian military base, the diplomats actually had a pretty productive day in Geneva.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchystsia, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton have reached a deal intended to defuse the crisis:

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In addition to disarmament of illegal groups, the seven-paragraph “Joint Geneva Statement” called for the return of “all illegally seized buildings . . . to legitimate owners” and said that “all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
As Ukraine’s interim government has previously offered, the agreement also grants amnesty to protesters, “with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.”…
It voiced support for a constitutional reform process currently underway in Ukraine and insisted that it be “inclusive, transparent and accountable.” The process, it said, “will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.”

In practice, this will likely mean much greater political autonomy for Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking eastern regions.

Hopefully the deal leads to the de-escalation of a situation that appeared to be on the verge of spiraling into mass violence, but there are a lot of unresolved questions, including how the regional governments of eastern Ukraine will interact with Kiev going forward, particularly on the issue of EU integration, which sparked this crisis in the first place. I'll also be curious to see what a referendum on the future status of eastern Ukraine will actually look like.

The agreement also doesn’t address the 40,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, meaning that Kiev could essentially be negotiating with a gun to its head in the weeks to come. The U.S. sanctions on Russian officials will presumably remain in place and could complicate other areas of cooperation for Washington and Moscow. Then, of course, there’s Crimea, which Ukraine is almost certainly not going to recognize as Russian territory and which Russia will almost certainly not give up.

Hopefully, at least this most dangerous phase of the crisis is coming to an end—although deals that seem secure have had a habit of falling apart very quickly in Ukraine—but even in the best scenario, we’re still a long way form being out of the woods.  

April 17 2014 11:08 AM

Putin’s Latest Comments on Ukraine Are Not Encouraging

Russian President Vladimir Putin held one of his annual televised Q&A sessions today, in which he spends a few hours taking preselected calls from viewers. This time, the callers included one Mr. Edward Snowden, a recent arrival in Russia. Obviously, the president also addressed the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

From an outside perspective, an end result of the crisis in which Russia maintains significant political leverage in a unified Ukraine seems like a better result than a costly intervention that inflicts further damage on the fragile Russian economy and likely results in Russian soldiers coming home in body bags.

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But, his calculus may be different if he views the current chaos as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore lost territory to Russia. From that perspective, his remarks on Ukraine today were not encouraging.

Putin stated that the legislature has given him the right to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians, and as David M. Herszenhorn of the New York Times put it, he "stressed Russia’s historical claim to the territory, repeatedly referring to it as 'new Russia' and saying that only 'God knows' why it became part of Ukraine.”

This echoed his remarks on Ukraine last month, when he stated that “for a number of reasons—may God judge them—added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine.”

This situation may have started with a major geopolitical setback for Russia, but now the president may view it as an opportunity to reverse what he sees as a historical wrong committed against Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

With the violence only worsening on the ground in eastern Ukraine, the prospects for this all being resolved soon don’t seem great today.

April 16 2014 4:35 PM

There Are a Lot More Abu Ghraibs Out There

The Iraqi Ministry of Justice announced yesterday that it has shuttered the Baghdad Central Prison, the facility formerly known as Abu Ghraib. According to the ministry’s website, authorities have relocated the prison’s 2,400 inmates—including convicted terrorists—to other facilities in central and northern Iraq.

Justice Minister Hassan Shammari cited security concerns, noting that Anbar province (where the prison is located) has become a “hot spot” of Sunni insurgent activity. Last July militants attacked the prison and freed hundreds of inmates, among them al-Qaida-affiliated detainees. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—which has also emerged as a key militant group in Syria—claimed credit for the breakout.

The prison, built by Western contractors in the 1960s, was a notorious torture center under Saddam Hussein. One journalist called it “a square kilometer of hell,” noting that the Baathist regime used it to hold and execute “undesirables” as well as criminals. An estimated 4,000 detainees died there during Hussein’s rule.

The site is most infamous, of course, for the abuse that occurred there at the hands of U.S. occupying forces. The disturbing photos and videos that surfaced in 2004 revealed that U.S. Army and CIA personnel tortured, raped, sodomized, and killed prisoners.

The Department of Defense removed 17 soldiers from duty in response to the scandal. Eleven were charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery, and were 11 convicted in courts-martial and sentenced to military prison. Not a single officer or civilian leader was held criminally responsible for the prisoner abuse, and five officers received administrative, non-criminal, punishment.

Closing Abu Ghraib is an important step for improving Iraqi security. It also brings a sense of finality to a dark tale of “recreational cruelties,” as Christopher Hitchens described the offenses. But it hardly eliminates prison abuse problems in Iraq.

As Amnesty International has reported, ill treatment is rife throughout the country’s prison system, at the hands of Iraqi forces. That 2010 report reads:

Even in the context of ongoing violence, there is no justification for keeping thousands of people in prisons and detention facilities without charge or trial, let alone keeping them like this for years. Many of the detainees have suffered torture and other ill-treatment by Iraqi security forces, and remain at risk of such abuses. Because of government complicity, tolerance or inaction in relation to such abuses, a culture of impunity prevails.

Moreover, closing Abu Ghraib ends but one chapter in a long, ongoing story of U.S.-managed “black sites” around the world. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay which President Obama promised  to close in one of the first acts of his presidency, is the best known example. But under Obama, the CIA has maintained a secret facility in Somalia and has been known to interrogate people on U.S. naval vessels to avoid accountability. Although Obama ordered an end to his predecessor’s torture policies, his administration has not closed all of the facilities in question and continues to use the controversial practice rendition to deal with some suspected terrorists.

It is right to praise the Abu Ghraib shutdown as a step in the right direction, and Iraqis are undoubtedly glad to wash their hands of the site. But although it may be an opportunity to declare one case closed, what that closure should really highlight is the sea of similar cases yet to be fully documented.

April 16 2014 4:00 PM

Iran Considering Drastic Measures to Reverse Baby Bust

A few months ago, I wrote about Iran’s efforts to reverse its declining fertility rate, already the most dramatic drop ever recorded.  

This week the Guardian reports that the country’s parliament is considering “banning vasectomies and introducing punishments for those involved in encouraging contraceptive services and abortions.” While Iran's government is socially conservative on many other issues, contraception is currently widely available. Abortion is illegal in most circumstances, but not uncommon. 

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The measure, which seems likely to pass, follows comments by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he described contraception as an imitation of Western lifestyles and warned that "if we move forward like this, we will be a country of elderly people in a not too distant future."

Khamenei is right about his country’s aging population. The median age jumped more than six years to 20.8 between 2000 and 2010 and could hit 40 by 2030.

But it was his own predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa making birth control widely available in the late 1980s amid fears that the economy could no longer support a population that had been growing rapidly under the government’s previous, pro-natalist policies.

In other words, Iran has been on something of a demographic roller coaster since the 1979 revolutions. But given that fertility rates are falling everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa—albeit at a slower rate than Iran in most places—the new measures seem likely to lead to some more unwanted pregnancies without reversing the larger trend.

April 16 2014 2:33 PM

Would Eastern Ukrainians Vote to Join Russia?

As even the most casual follower of the events in Ukraine is aware, the country’s politics are split neatly down the middle along regional and linguistic lines, mostly over the question of whether it should seek closer ties with Europe or Russia.

But how many eastern Ukrainians would actually favor their region becoming part of Russia? That’s a bit harder to gauge. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is confident that a majority would favor unity if a referendum on the issue were held.

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Granted, there’s a good chance such a referendum would be as obviously flawed as the one we saw in Crimea last month, but assuming the situation somehow worked out to allow for a relatively fair vote to be held, would eastern Ukrainians vote for a split?

The most recent reliable polling suggests they probably wouldn’t, but it might be close.

The poll, conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, with support from groups including the European Union, the government of the Netherlands, and the National Endowment for Democracy, asked respondents what they would “like to see the relationship between Ukraine and Russia look like.”

25.8 percent of eastern Ukrainians said that “Ukraine and Russia must unite into a single state,” compared with a national average of 12.5 percent. A parallel poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Russian research organization, found that only 12.5 percent of Russians favored the two countries reuniting.

This data, however, is already out of date. The survey was conducted in early February, before the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych or the annexation of Crimea. It certainly seems plausible that after these events, as well as weeks of aggressively anti-Kiev propaganda from the Russian media, easterners might be more hostile to the government in Kiev than they were a few weeks ago. In a post-Crimea world, Russianization may also now seem like a much more plausible scenario.

There are also a number of plausible outcomes the survey doesn’t include, including the most likely—an eastern region with greater regional autonomy. Some separatists have also raised the possibility of the region becoming an “independent country allied with Russia.”

The irony of the poll is that the vast majority of Ukrainians—72.2 percent in the east and 68 percent nationwide—believed that Russia and Ukraine “must be independent, but friendly states – with open borders, without visas and customs houses.”

Of all the potential outcomes of the current crisis, the one most Ukrainians regardless of political orientation actually want—a unified country maintaining a cordial relationship with Russia—now appears to be the least likely.

April 16 2014 12:04 PM

Is al-Qaida’s New No. 2 Confident or Just Crazy?

Al-Qaida’s general manager (more often referred to as the terror network's “No. 2”) is a position with a pretty high turnover rate. There was Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2010, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2012.

So it’s particularly shocking to see the current occupant of that position, Nasir al-Wuhayshi—also the emir of an offshoot group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, brazenly holding an open-air meeting in Yemen with more than 100 fighters in attendance.

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This could be a sign that AQAP is feeling more secure. (A jailbreak in the capital, Sana'a, was a recent success for the group.) Or it could simply be reckless: While the U.S. drone war may be on hold in Pakistan, strikes continue with brutal regularity in Yemen.

Wuhayshi is believed to have been tapped for the GM position by global al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri following al-Libi’s death, in a sign that power is shifting from al-Qaida’s traditional base in Pakistan to AQAP, which has clearly been the most active and dangerous branch of the group for some time.

The Yemen-born Wuhayshi served as Osama Bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan from the early 1990s until the 9/11 attacks, and fought at the Battle of Tora Bora. After al-Qaida fled the country, Wuhayshi wound up in Iran for a time, was deported to Yemen and arrested, then escaped in a now-famous jailbreak in 2006.

After his escape, he helped found AQAP, responsible for numerous attacks within Yemen and known internationally for the 2003 Riyadh bombing, the 2008 attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, the attempted 2009 Detroit plane attack, and the online propaganda of Anwar al-Awlaki. A member of al-Qaida’s younger generation, Wuhayshi is reportedly known for his Internet savvy and played a role in the founding of Awlaki’s Inspire magazine.  

In a 2010 New York Times article, a Yemeni journalist who has met him describes him as “laconic but quick-witted, with flashes of sarcastic humor and a remarkable ability to adduce Koranic verses to back up anything he said.” Wuhayshi seemed to be emulating his mentor Bin Laden in his leadership style: “more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander.”

In his current position, Wuhayshi’s duties encompass not only his own regional affiliate but all of al-Qaida’s groups. According to reporting by the Daily Beast, a “conference call”—which was likely not an actual phone call—he organized with Zawahiri last year involved “leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch.”

That meeting was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, prompting the closing of embassies throughout the region. Given the ease with which the plans discussed at that meeting seem to have been disrupted, it’s possible that a face-to-face meeting—despite the risk of a drone strike—was seen as less operationally risky.

Whatever the reason, it seems like an awfully big gamble from an al-Qaida commander who’s been fairly canny up until now.

April 15 2014 4:15 PM

Cossacks Return to the World Stage

Many of the pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine are being referred to in the media—or at least are referring to themselves—as Cossacks. Between this and the role Cossacks played in policing the Sochi Olympics—notably their filmed attack on members of Pussy Riot—the Cossacks have made a fairly dramatic return to the world stage this year.

To non-Russians, this reads as a bit antiquated—as though “Janissaries” or “Hussars” were suddenly playing a significant role in modern warfare. But the roots of the Cossack revival have been apparent for a while now.

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Not quite an ethnic or linguistic group—though they are nearly all Orthodox Christians—but more than just a military unit, the Cossacks trace their roots back to nomadic groups—either escaped serfs or descendants of Tatar tribes, depending on which account you read—who spread throughout southeastern Russia and Ukraine during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Though once openly rebellious against Tsarist rule, they were integrated over time into the Russian military and played a key role in securing the Russian frontier, “pacifying” the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus, and beating back Napoleon’s forces. In Russian culture they play a role similar to cowboys and were subjects for writers including Gogol, Tolstoy, and Pushkin.

Outside of Russia, they’re better known for leading Tsarist-era anti-Semitic pogroms.

Having mostly fought on the side of the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Russian civil war, the Cossacks were treated brutally under the Soviet Union—tens of thousands were killed or deported under the Bolsheviks’ “de-Cossackization” campaign—however, they’ve made a cultural and political comeback during the post-Soviet era.

It began with Boris Yeltsin signing a number of decrees recognizing special rights, including the right to bear arms, for Cossack groups, but their re-emergence has accelerated under Vladimir Putin, who has made them something of a symbol of his conservative nationalist ideology. In 2005 Putin signed a bill allowing registered Cossack organizations to select members of special Cossack units in the Russian military and giving himself the right to appoint Cossack generals.

Cossack military schools have been formed. Cossack patrols have been policing cities in 19th-century military garb, including Moscow. In Krasnodar, home to Sochi, 1,000 Cossacks were put on the government payroll ahead of the Winter Olympics.

They’ve also at times served as conservative cultural enforcers, policing ethnic minorities from southern Russia and leading campaigns against controversial artwork including Pussy Riot and a staged reading of Lolita in St. Peterburg. 

Putin has promoted the use of Cossacks as a police force, saying they’re often more efficient than the official police. Critics charge that they’re also less accountable than the official police and that the modern day Cossacks, are hostile to non-Russian ethnic groups, and have little actual connection to the fabled warriors of yore.

Be that as it may, quite a few people have enthusiastically embraced the identity. In 2010 Cossacks were counted as a separate ethnicity for the first time, and about 650,000 Russians declared themselves members of the group. Cossack leaders say there may be as many as 2.5 million worldwide. But not all governments have been as enthusiastic about the Cossack revival as Russia. As Simon Shuster of Time recently wrote, things are a bit different in Ukraine:

Ukraine’s succession of leaders, regardless of whether they leaned toward Russia or the West, have treated the local Crimean Cossacks with great suspicion. Their commanders in Crimea have spread militant notions of Slavic unity among their young cadets. All of that has attracted scrutiny from Ukraine’s security services in recent years. Under the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia-leaning leader who was deposed in a revolution last month, Crimea’s leading Cossacks were investigated for training paramilitary groups and speaking out in support of separatism, both of which are illegal in Ukraine. Some of them have had their Cossack training camps raided by police in search of weapons. Others have been deported to Russia on charges of inciting ethnic hatred.

The annexation of Crimea presents local Cossacks with the opportunity to win the favored status that their cohorts in Russia have been enjoying for years. The self-identified Cossacks taking part in the takeovers in eastern Ukraine may be hoping for the same.

April 15 2014 1:24 PM

A Deadly Decade for Environmentalists

According to a report released today by the London-based NGO Global Witness, at least 908 environmental activists have been killed over the last decade. That number is comparable to the 913 journalists killed in the course of their work in the same period and is likely on the low side—reporting is inconsistent in many countries, and full data for 2013 hasn’t yet been collected. 2012 was deadliest year ever for environmentalists, with 147 killed.

According to the report, more than two-thirds of these killings took “took place in the context of conflicts over the ownership, control and use of land,” reflecting the dark side of rapid development in many emerging economies.

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The most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists is Brazil, with 448 killings over the last 10 years. According to the report, “this can be attributed to Brazil’s land ownership patterns, which are among the most concentrated and unequal in the world.” The country’s rapid economic growth has frequently brought powerful business interests into conflict with small and medium-sized farms as well as indigenous groups, often with deadly consequences.

To be fair, the high totals from Brazil may also be a result of the fact that the country has a relatively robust civil society and media sector, so killings in the context of land and environmental disputes are more likely to be reported. Some of the best-known cases involving the killing of environmentalists have been in the country, including José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo—two Amazon activists shot by gunmen in 2011. There was also the murder of American-born nun Dorothy Stang in 2005, and rubber tapper Chico Mendes—since proclaimed Patron of the Brazilian Environment by the government—in 1988.

These cases were unusual in that they prompted national and worldwide outrage and that in all three, perpetrators were eventually convicted.

Globally, the report found that only 10 killers of environmental activist have been convicted over the last decade.

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