New Details Emerge About Attack That Killed US Soldiers in Niger

A combination photo of U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson (L to R), U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Bryan Black, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Dustin Wright and U.S. Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson killed in Niger, West Africa, Oct. 4, 2017, in these handout photos released October 18, 2017.

A combination photo of U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson (L to R), U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Bryan Black, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Dustin Wright and U.S. Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson killed in Niger, West Africa, Oct. 4, 2017, in these handout photos released October 18, 2017.

 

New details are emerging about the attack that left four U.S. soldiers dead in Niger as U.S. congressional leaders are demanding answers from the Pentagon.

The four U.S. service members, three of whom were Green Berets (special forces), along with four Nigerian soldiers were killed on October 4 in an ambush in Tongo-Tongo, a village near the border with Mali.

On the eve of the attack, about 30 Special Forces, mostly Nigeriens and eight U.S. Green Berets, set off in pickup trucks toward the border village and arrived at night, according to Almou Hassane, mayor of Tongo-Tongo, in the Tondikiwindi district.

“They must have spent the night in the northwest of Tongo-Tongo,” Mayor Hassane said in a phone interview with the VOA French-to-Africa service.

"These Nigerien soldiers are part of a security and intelligence battalion that has been trained by the U.S. forces during several U.S.-led training exercises known as Flintlock," said Moussa Aksar, director of the newspaper l'Évènement in Niamey, and a terrorism specialist in the Sahel.

The soldiers were trying to track down an accomplice of Abu Adnan al-Sahraoui, a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who joined the Islamic State terror group in the Sahara Desert.

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, a U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, Oct. 5, 2017, upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Delware.
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, a U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, Oct. 5, 2017, upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Delware.

The soldiers questioned the villagers, who dragged on the discussions longer than anticipated.

“It turns out that this village was a little contaminated by hostile forces,” said Aksar. “The unit stayed a little longer than expected because apparently people were aware that something was going on."

For his part, Mayor Hassane said, “The attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among local populations.”

A fake terror attack attracted the soldiers to a trap outside the village, where about 50 assailants in vehicles and motorcycles armed with Kalashnikovs and heavy weapons opened fire on them. Four Nigerien soldiers and three Americans were killed on the spot. The body of the fourth American soldier was found 48 hours later, about a mile away from the initial site, CNN reported.

“We are not talking about civilians wounded or killed because these soldiers were ambushed outside the village,” Aksar said.

The attack has raised questions, especially since the U.S. Army operates drone bases in Niger and has significant intelligence resources there.

“That's what really shocked us: how, at their level, with all the resources they have, they could not have strong intelligence to avoid what happened there,” said Hassane.

Since the attack, Tongo-Tongo village chief Mounkaila Alassane has been arrested, and there is no information on his whereabouts.

No group has officially taken responsibility for the attack. According to sources in the region, however, it is the work of Abu Adnan al-Saharaoui, who calls himself the Islamic Emir of the Great Sahara, affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Map of Niger, showing the area where a joint U.S.-Niger military patrol was attacked.
Map of Niger, showing the area where a joint U.S.-Niger military patrol was attacked.

According to a Tuareg from the region, al-Saharaoui is reported to be involved in arms and fuel trafficking. He is a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which occupied and imposed sharia law in northern Mali in 2012 before being dislodged by French forces.

Al-Saharaoui, a former acquaintance of Algerian extremist and trafficker Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, had led the kidnapping of the nine-person staff of the Algerian consulate in Gao in 2012. Originally from Western Sahara, he wants to control the band on the common border of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

“He wants to take control of all these communities facing poverty and governance issues so that they can join his cause,” said Aksar.

The group is the latest of several jihadist organizations in the Sahel region, including the Defenders of Islam group linked to militant Iyad Ag Ghali in northern Mali. The movement for the Liberation of Macina, led by Hamadoun Koufa, remained very active in central Mali.

Ansarul Islam, on the other side of the border, is increasing its attacks in northern Burkina Faso, while Boko Haram continues to launch attacks in the countries in Africa's Lake Chad Basin.

The al-Mourabitoun group, which is led by Moktar Belmokhtar — declared dead several times — has perpetrated several terror actions in the vast Sahel region, including the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria that left 67 people dead.

Some Analysts See Election Bid By 'Russian Paris Hilton' as Ploy to Split Opposition Vote

Russian socialite and opposition member Kseniya Sobchak waits outside a court where Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov attends a hearing, in Moscow, Oct. 17, 2017.

Russian socialite and opposition member Kseniya Sobchak waits outside a court where Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov attends a hearing, in Moscow, Oct. 17, 2017.

 

A popular Russian TV anchor who recently announced plans to seek the presidency has vowed to withdraw her candidacy if mainstream opposition leader Alekei Navalny becomes eligible to reenter the contest, but some Russia observers have been quick to pan her candidacy as a Kremlin ploy to split the liberal opposition.

Journalist Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, the former St. Petersburg mayor and one-time mentor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched a promotional video Wednesday in which she in announced her decision to run as a candidate “against all” on behalf of all angry Russian voters.

In the video, Sobchak says she will drop out of the race if Navalny, who is legally barred from seeking public office until 2028, is allowed to return to the ballot. But some analysts see her bid as a Kremlin ploy to split the liberal opposition by planting a Kremlin-approved spoiler candidate to give the election the appearance of credibility.

Both Sobchak and presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov have vigorously denied the allegation that any Kremlin officials are involved in Sobchak's candidacy.

Meeting with reporters on Thursday, however, Peskov did not clarify how Putin, who recently met privately with Sobchak, reacted to her plans to challenge his presumptive candidacy for reelection.

Multimillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's 2012 run for office, in which he secured about 8 percent of the vote, was largely described by critics in the same terms.

Russia's state-run Tass news agency is reporting that Ilya Yashin, the head of Russia's opposition Solidarity movement, won't support Sobchak, a prominent "it girl" socialite who is routinely described as the "Russian Paris Hilton."

FILE - Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (R) and Russian opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak visit Independence Square in Kiev, March 9, 2014.
FILE - Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (R) and Russian opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak visit Independence Square in Kiev, March 9, 2014.

 

Establishment resentment

Sobchak’s candidacy hasn’t thrilled some of Russia’s seasoned politicians, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

“This is a fake, phony candidate,” he said, adding that her arrival on the campaign trail could have "dangerous" consequences. He did not elaborate upon what that meant.

Political analyst Dmitry echoed that sentiment, calling Sobchak’s bid “a mutually beneficial scenario” for the 35-year-old TV anchor and Kremlin operatives.

“Clearly Ksenia is a public figure with experience and great communication skills,” Oreshkin told VOA’s Russian service. “Many people may vote for her. She is a woman, she is a fresh face in politics, she is famous, and simply just for kicks. I think she has a good chance to get around 10 percent [of the vote]. The element of novelty will kick in. The Kremlin is counting on that, most likely. That is also what she is counting on.”

Regardless of how her candidacy fairs, Oreshkin added, it can only enhance her elite social status.

“If a candidate for president of Russia hosts some corporate party, it’s fantastic and [has the power to raise] a lot more money, as I understand it,” he said.

Because opposition leader Navalny is barred from running, Oreshkin added, the Kremlin is depending on Sobchak to “bring a terribly depressing presidential campaign back to life.”

“Now there is a new topic for discussion: whether Sobchak is good or bad, whether she’s helping Navalny or hurting him,” Oreshkin said. “It’s something to talk about. The democratically inclined voters will go after that bone. It’s also an element in the Kremlin’s bigger picture, or special operation -- whatever you want to call it.”

If Sobchak is running with blessings of the Kremlin, he said, it only underscores the Russian government's faith in its own impunity.

“It is, in fact, a signal that the government not only demonstrably despises electoral procedures and any civic myths and arguments that the people should be respected, but also the fact that the Kremlin has hopelessly lost touch with reality,” Oreshkin said.

“We just have to thank the Kremlin that it didn’t nominate the puppy named Vernyi that the president of Turkmenistan recently gave to Putin as a gift,” he added.

The name Vernyi literally means "loyalty" in Russian.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a puppy presented to him by Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Oct. 11, 2017.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a puppy presented to him by Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Oct. 11, 2017.

 

‘No target to spoil’

Andrei Kolesnikov, director of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Moscow Carnegie Center, thinks Sobchak’s candidacy lacks any practical significance.

“It cannot have any influence on the outcome of the election,” Kolesnikov told VOA. “The president will receive the required amount of votes, just like the runner-up, and it’s not worth even mentioning the other [candidates].”

Sobchak’s bid, he said, is most likely a self-serving personal project that was “probably approved by the Kremlin but not initiated by it.”

“If [Sobchak is] to be a spoiler, then [she is] without a target to spoil. Navalny will not be allowed to run for president however you look at it," he said, adding that her candidacy also poses no tangible threat to liberal Yabloko Party candidate Grigory Yavlinsky.

"[Yavlinsky] has a nuclear voter base: it’s small but tough, and it’s not leaving him for anyone else,” Kolesnikov said. "I believe the Kremlin grabbed hold of Sobchak’s initiative in an attempt to somehow stir interest in the election. I can even imagine that she will get government support at some point.”

Russia's Central Election Commission recently barred Navalny from seeking office due to his 2013 conviction on money-laundering charges.

International watchdogs groups such as Amnesty International have called the charges a politically motivated fabrication, and the European Court of Human Rights, which recently reviewed the evidence against Navalny, called the Russia court's decision "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."

Kolesnikov said: “Those who are truly opposition-minded won't take [Sobchak] seriously.

“Alekei Navalny is working outside of the legal framework so we can’t estimate his possible losses. There is the view that her bid will make it difficult to deliver Navalny’s ideas to the voters. But I don’t accept this argument. Navalny has sufficient chances” to have his message heard, he said.

This story, which originated in VOA's Russian Service, was translated by Svetlana Cunningham.

Catalonia Protesters Demand Release of Separatist Leaders

Protesters with ''esteladas'' or Catalonia independence flags pack the University square during a one-day strike in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017.

Protesters with ''esteladas'' or Catalonia independence flags pack the University square during a one-day strike in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017.

 

Tens of thousands of people protested Tuesday night in Barcelona against the Spanish government's detention of two Catalan separatist leaders.

The demonstrators carried candles and banners demanding the release of Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, who are being held on possible sedition charges.

Prosecutors accuse Cuixart of the Omnium Cultural movement and Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly of provoking violence against police during a pro-independence march last month.

Catalan leaders have called the two political prisoners, which the government denies.

Earlier Tuesday, Spain's top court ruled Catalonia's independence referendum was illegal, saying that regional law backing the vote violated Spain's constitution.

The Catalan government had passed the "self-determination referendum law" on September 6. Spain's high court said the law must be suspended temporarily as it assessed the Spanish government's opposition to it, but Catalonia went ahead with the referendum on October 1.

According to court regulations, the suspension was to last five months while judges come up with a ruling, but the pro-independence coalition ruling Catalonia claimed that the universal right to self-determination outweighs Spain's laws.

Catalonia's government spokesperson, Jordi Turull, told reporters Tuesday Catalonia would not "surrender" its secession bid and reiterated calls for talks with Madrid on what he called "a democratic mandate" for independence.

Spain has given Catalonia until Thursday to reverse any moves it has made to secede or face direct rule from Madrid.

Catalonia, Spain's most prosperous region, is home to 7.5 million people. Its capital, Barcelona, is one of Europe's major tourist attractions. Catalonia has its own language and distinct culture, and is deeply divided over independence.

The Catalan government said that 90 percent of Catalans who participated in the October 1 referendum voted for independence from Spain. Many opponents of independence boycotted the vote, reducing turnout to around 43 percent of eligible voters.

With Islamic State Pushed Out, What's Next for Raqqa?

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces raise a white flag near the National Hospital complex where the Islamic State militants are holed up, at the frontline in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 16, 2017.

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces raise a white flag near the National Hospital complex where the Islamic State militants are holed up, at the frontline in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 16, 2017.

 

They raised a flag in Paradise Square, a notorious traffic circle in which the jihadists had staged brutal public executions, including beheadings, leaving severed heads on display for days afterwards. And then the victors doughnut-spun armored vehicles around in mimicry of how Islamic State militants celebrated their takeover of the city three years ago.

There was relief and pride in the faces of the Kurd fighters as they savored the crushing blow they delivered IS this week, marking the end of four months of grueling fighting against the militants for control of the city of Raqqa, the jihadists’ de facto capital.

Wrecked buildings now surround the square, renamed during IS’s three-year tenure as “Hell Square.” Like the rest of the city no building has been left unscathed by the battle for Raqqa. But who will rebuild and how fast is unclear.

And other questions remain unanswered about Raqqa’s fate. How many of the city’s inhabitants will return and how quickly? Who will govern a city that will struggle to exorcise the ghosts of the medieval-style depravity and cruelty inflicted on it?

More wars

As in neighboring Iraq, which saw Iraqi forces along with Shi'ite militias and Yazidi fighters wrest control of disputed territory from Iraqi Kurds, other wars are shaping in the wings in Syria, fear locals and analysts.

In Raqqa, a civilian council made up of Kurds and Arabs has been set up by the victorious Syrian Democratic Forces, with the support of the United States and other Western backers, to take over the running of the razed city. But resentments could build fast, if local Arabs feel they are being bossed around by the Kurds and are not respected in the governance of the city, Raqqa is historically Arab, not Kurdish.

Within hours of the SDF resting control of Raqqa, Arab political activists who oppose IS and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed disdain. “We don’t consider it a liberation because SDF has committed many human rights violations against civilians,” the activist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently tweeted Wednesday.

“The flags only changed, Raqqa from occupation to another,” the network added.

Another Arab activist group, Eye on the Homeland, warned recently that civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes, up to 2,000 are thought to have been killed in the fight, would allow militants to convince local Sunni Arabs that “these military forces do not have their interests at heart,” providing opportunities for further radicalization.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is worsening. International agencies estimate at least 270,000 people have been displaced from Raqqa, and the camps where they are being hosted have insufficient food, water and medicine.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop of military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 17, 2017.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop of military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 17, 2017.

Humanitarian crisis

With high levels of destruction reported in and around Raqqa, most families have little or nothing to return home to and will likely be stuck in camps for months or years to come,” the international aid group Save the Children warned Tuesday.

Tuesday, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition battling IS, tweeted, “We have pre-positioned aid, will help clear IEDs, restore services.” But at the same time, officials in Washington have emphasized the U.S. role will be limited.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties involved in the Syrian conflict to facilitate access for humanitarian aid to reach Raqqa, while reiterating “the urgent need to reinvigorate the political process” aimed at finding an end to the more than six years of fighting.

To the south of the city, Syrian government forces linger. At one point earlier this year it looked as if the Syrian army supported by Russia might be poised to beat U.S.-backed forces to Raqqa. How long before Damascus wants control of Raqqa remains unclear and President Bashar al-Assad has said in the past “Raqqa is a symbol” and that it is his duty to retake all of Syria.

He likely won’t have to struggle to recover Raqqa. Officials in Washington say at some stage they will hand it over.

“We will restore basic services, not (do) the nation-building that the U.S. government previously engaged in in other countries,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. She said the goal “is to get it up and running and then turn it over to other countries and the host country.”

People displaced in fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants are pictured at a refugee camp in Ain Issa, Syria, Oct. 14, 2017.
People displaced in fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants are pictured at a refugee camp in Ain Issa, Syria, Oct. 14, 2017.

Comprehensive settlement

But anti-Assad activists question the point of rebuilding in Raqqa or in de-escalation zones being set up by foreign powers elsewhere in Syria, if it merely lays the groundwork for future violence and unrest. Rebuilding before there is a comprehensive political settlement of the Syria conflict is putting the cart before the horse, they say.

“Conversations about Syria are quietly shifting away from an evasive political solution and towards the allure of post-conflict reconstruction,” argued Rouba Mhaissen on the website Syria Deeply. “In areas where violence has effectively ceased, violations of human rights have not, and rampant arbitrary detention, forced displacement and the constant threat of retaliation continues,” she added.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians will “soon start trickling back into the wasteland that used to be their hometown and, seeing the destruction, they won’t necessarily be inclined to trust their new rulers,” argues Aron Lund, an analyst with U-S.-based policy research group The Century Foundation

“In these hints of future conflict and ethnic strife rests the Islamic State’s hope for a comeback,” he adds.

Telegram CEO's Court Appeal Tests Russia Eavesdropping Laws, Technical Acumen

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov, center, smiles as he leaves after a press conference following his meeting with Indonesian Communication and Information Minister Rudiantara in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 1, 2017.

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov, center, smiles as he leaves after a press conference following his meeting with Indonesian Communication and Information Minister Rudiantara in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 1, 2017.

 

Telegram founder Pavel Durov has announced plans to appeal a Moscow court's decision Monday to fine the encrypted messaging service some $14,000 (800 thousand rubles) for failing to provide law enforcement agencies with user information and access to private correspondences.

Providing security services with encryption keys to read users' messaging data violates Russia's constitution, he said in a post on Vkontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, which he co-founded in 2007.

"Everyone has the right to privacy of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraphic and other communications," Durov said, quoting constitutional excerpts.

Russian special services need decryption keys to "expand their influence at the expense of the constitutional right of citizens," he said, building on similar comments Durov made in September, when he announced that FSB officials had requested backdoor access to Telegram.

Russian security officials have said encryption codes are vital to protecting citizens against terror attacks such as those earlier this year in St. Petersburg, in which perpetrators, Kremlin officials says, communicated via Telegram.

According to Pavel Chikov, a prominent Russian human rights lawyer, the FSB state security organization (formerly KGB) is trying to gain technical access by announcing ultimatums and making threats. While fines levied aren't too burdensome for a company of Telegram's size, they do indicate an FSB willingness to block Telegram from continuing to operate in the country.

A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone showing the account page of Pavel Durov, the former CEO and founder of VKontakte, in Red Square in Moscow, April 23, 2014.
A user of Russia’s leading social network internet site VKontakte, poses holding an iPhone showing the account page of Pavel Durov, the former CEO and founder of VKontakte, in Red Square in Moscow, April 23, 2014.

Third-party hackers

The situation, Chikov said, is similar to legal proceedings that resulted from FBI requests for encryption access to Apple iPhones — a request that ultimately was dropped, leaving federal investigators to rely on third-party hackers.

Secrecy, anonymity and "the ability to communicate in such a way that representatives of the state do not hear these conversations," should also be respected in Russia, Chikov told VOA Russian.

"Generally speaking, if we are talking on [a conventional] telephone, the conversation is protected by constitutional guarantees," Chikov said. However, Russian police and various state security agencies can obtain court-ordered warrants to tap the phone of specific individuals suspected of a plotting criminal activities — and they have the technical acumen required to do it.

Although privacy laws are generally the same for peer-to-peer text-messaging devices, Russian security agencies lack the technical sophistication to hack Telegram's encrypted conversations.

Durov 'most likely right'

Professor Ilya Shablinsky, a constitutional law expert with Moscow's National Research University, says Durov is "most likely right" that FSB demands represent a constitutional violation, as allowing FSB access to Telegram would allow for users' correspondence to be read.

"When that constitutional norm was drafted, correspondence was typically drafted on paper," he said.

"And the Russian Constitution's authors never envisaged a technological variant [such as Telegram]. In this case, we do not know exactly what kind of information the FSB requested, and what it means for Telegram to provide that information."

According to Shablinsky, although a Russian court can demand access to correspondences of a specific individual who is suspected of committing a crime, it is not known whether the provision covers access to the decryption devices for an entire network of users.

The free instant-messaging app, which lets people exchange messages, photos and videos in groups of up to 5,000 people, has attracted about 100 million users since its launch in 2013.

Founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov delivers a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016.
Founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov delivers a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016.

Telegram threatened

In June, Roskomnadzor, Russia's state communications watchdog, threatened to ban Telegram for failing to provide user registration documents, which were requested as part of a push to increase surveillance of internet activities.

Although Telegram later registered, it stopped short of agreeing to Roskomnadzor's data storage demands. Companies on the register must provide the FSB with information on user interactions; starting from 2018, they also must store all of the data of Russian users inside the country, according to controversial anti-terror legislation passed last year, which was decried by internet companies and the opposition.

Telegram has 10 days to appeal Monday's decision.

'No planned block'

Asked about a potential block of the service, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday said, "As far as I know ... there is no discussion of a block at this time."

But observers like Chikov say the risk is quite high.

"It is not necessarily going to happen right after the decision on the penalty comes into effect, as I believe that the authorities will still take a pause and try to negotiate with the company's management," he said. "However, with its refusal to provide access to correspondence, Telegram entered into direct conflict with the interests of the special services. Consequently, the political weight of people who decide to block is significantly higher than that of the same Roskomnadzor."

Telegram, one-tenth the size of Facebook-owned rival WhatsApp, has caught on in many corners of the globe, including for a while with Islamic State as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages.

Durov, who has been described as "the Russian Mark Zuckerberg," spent years fending off intrusions into his users' communications, forging an uncompromising stance on privacy after founding VKontakte, only to lose control of that social media company for refusing Russian government demands to block dissidents.

Since leaving Russia in 2014 to set up Telegram in self-exile, Durov and his core team of 15 developers have become perpetual migrants, living only a few months at a time in any one location, starting in Berlin, then London, Silicon Valley, Finland, Spain and elsewhere. The company is incorporated in multiple jurisdictions, including Britain.

This story originated in VOA's Russian Service. Some information for this report provided by AFP.

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