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Archive for January 12th, 2010|Daily archive page

France battles theft of cultural treasures

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:38 pm

French police colonel Stephane Gauffeny started the year with a heavy caseload.








Louvre Museum that has lost a lot of treasures

His job: investigating the theft of art and treasures in France, one of the best-endowed and most stolen-from countries in the world, which was struck by two major crimes in the week after Christmas alone.


In the first, a picture by Edgar Degas worth 800,000 euros (1.14 billion dollars) was unscrewed from the walls of a museum in Marseille.


The colourful pastel of performing singers, titled “The Chorus”, was on loan from the Musee d’Orsay, Paris’s eminent museum of Impressionist art.


Three days later, police discovered the theft of some 30 paintings valued at around a million euros, including works by Picasso and Rousseau, from a private villa in the south.


Both cases crossed Gauffeny’s desk at the government’s cultural theft investigations squad, where he oversees national efforts to “identify stolen objects and beat the traffickers.”


“It’s an enormous job — a fascinating job,” the stocky gendarme told AFP, sipping milky coffee at a Paris cafe after a morning of meetings.


Local and foreign thieves have for years been targeting the collections in French museums, churches and private homes, exploiting a rich cultural heritage that draws millions of foreign visitors a year.


In last year’s highest profile case, thieves broke into a museum devoted to Spanish artist Pablo Picasso in central Paris and stole a book of his pencil drawings valued by the government at three million euros.


Gauffeny says thefts have declined by a factor of four in the past decade as thieves look for loot that is easier to sell and France has stiffened penalties for those convicted of stealing objects classed as cultural assets.


But this still left 2,000 thefts across the country in 2008, according to his figures.


“We concentrate our energy on the biggest thefts or the biggest criminal rings,” Gauffeny said, citing an ongoing investigation of auctioneers at the renowned Drouot auction house in Paris.


Two Drouot brokers were charged last month after police recovered more than 100 artworks, including a painting by the 19th-century artist Gustave Courbet, “Seascape Under Stormy Skies”, worth 900,000 euros.


Gauffeny said it was a huge case and “extremely rare”, possibly involving scores of insiders — a different class of crime from the armed robberies or opportunistic thefts that his unit has dealt with in the past.


“We have put all our investigative resources into it,” he said.


The cross-border police agency Interpol, based in Lyon, cites France and Italy as the two nations worst affected by the theft of precious artworks and antiques.


In August it launched an online catalogue of missing artefacts, which lists hundreds of paintings stolen in France as well as crucifixes, chalices and other treasures burgled from its churches over the decades.


“France has a relatively large national heritage,” says Aline Le Visage, the representative in France for the Art Loss Register, a private firm that logs and identifies stolen objects for victims, dealers and other clients.


This abundance makes it “a country of choice” for art thieves — and many great works are held not by museums but by private individuals, she said.


“There has been a slight fall in thefts over the past 10 years or so on a world level, but we have noticed a rise in thefts from private owners and also in galleries.”


Robbers have struck at museums in Paris and other cities, sometimes in broad daylight, Gauffeny says, recalling various sting operations and cross-border hand-offs of stolen artworks, many of which quickly vanish abroad.


Police say major artworks are usually trafficked abroad, sometimes within days of being stolen — most to neighbouring European countries, but sometimes as far as the United States and Japan, from where they are rarely recovered.


Demand follows the same general trends as the legal art market, and much art crime is carried out by insiders. “Most of the people fencing the items are art dealers,” Gauffeny said.


Objects of lesser value often stay in France, sometimes held in reserve by the traffickers who quietly leak them back onto the market years later.


In one operation in 2008 in Marseille, Gauffeney said, police infiltrated a ring of thieves and seized paintings by Monet and Sisley after posing as buyers who wanted to take the works to the United States.


In another, near Lyon, an investigation into antique-dealing circles led police to a vast haul of stolen goods in a storage space spanning hundreds of square metres.


Outside the big city museum cases, Gauffeny and other experts say most of the crimes hit softer targets: unsecured provincial venues, churches and homes.


Didier Rykner, a fine art specialist who monitors thefts on his online journal La Tribune de l’Art, said many works are at risk in run-down, unguarded museums on which authorities are unwilling to spend money.


“In my opinion the problem of theft is more serious in churches than in museums. There are major works in churches and they are less well guarded,” he said.


“Yet the more valuable a work is, the harder it is to sell, because everyone knows the object.”


Some of the biggest cases, such as last year’s stolen Picasso, nevertheless remain unsolved, leaving plenty of work for Gauffeny’s department and its huge database of stolen items.


“We are always particularly on the look-out for national treasures,” said Gauffeny, while for minor or privately-owned artefacts, “the rate of recovery is low.”


The fight to recover cultural relics is “a really fascinating job, full of emotion,” he added.


“When you return objects stolen from a church, the whole village comes out to see you.”


 


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Venezuela military shutters stores raising prices after devaluation

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:38 pm

The Venezuelan military on Monday shuttered 70 firms, including a European-backed supermarket, apparently fulfilling a pledge to close businesses that raise prices after a massive currency devaluation.








An officer of the Venezuela’s consumer protection agency checks prices as soldiers look on at a supermarket, accused of raising prices, in Caracas, Monday, Jan. 11, 2009.

The government of leftist President Hugo Chavez asked the National Guard to close the stores for alleged “irregularities,” state-run news agency ABN said.


A Caracas branch of French-backed supermarket Exito, was earlier closed for 24 hours for alleged price gouging.


The news came as Venezuelans rushed to empty supermarket shelves of televisions, refrigerators in anticipation that prices would soar for imported items.


On Friday, Chavez announced the bolivar would now trade at 4.30 to the dollar for “non-essential” goods — double the present rate, and a rate of 2.60 bolivars against the dollar for basic goods.


The firebrand leader warned Sunday that any price speculation by shopkeepers would trigger business seizures, and called on the National Guard to help people fight price hikes.


“To those gentlemen, let’s call them looters of the people… If they want to, go ahead and do it, but we’ll take their business and hand it over to the workers,” Chavez said on his weekly radio and television talk show “Alo Presidente.”


ABN said food, car part and other businesses were closed on Monday “for changing the price of products and for speculation.”


Yet consumers remained anxious.


“We have sold three times as much as normal,” said the owner of an appliance shop in Caracas, as panicky buyers formed long lines outside stores.


One shopper, a systems analyst who asked not to be named, said the devaluation prompted him to buy a television he had been eyeing for months.


“Pretty soon, they are all going to cost twice as much, but I am not going to be earning twice as much,” he said.


Fellow shopper Rosaura Martinez echoed similar concerns. “Really, I am not sure whether the price is going to go up not, but just in case, I came down here to get my oven,” she said.


The bolivar devaluation was the first since 2005, and was designed in part to bolster public finances that have withered amid dwindling oil revenues and a rapidly contracting economy.


Critics said the move would allow Chavez to boost public spending ahead of elections in September, but would severely damage the health of the economy.


The measures will see the government net twice as much for each dollar of oil revenue, and will move the bolivar closer to its rate on the black market of around six bolivars per dollar.


International investors hailed the devaluation as long overdue, but warned it would do little to stem the decline of Venezuela’s once booming economy, unless steps are made to boost investor confidence.


Since coming to office, Chavez has sought to remake the Venezuelan economy, vowing to create a more equitable, socialist system.


He has initiated a string of nationalizations of foreign firms, banks and measures.


The largest oil producer in South America, Venezuela slipped into a recession in 2009 for the first time in six years due to a drop in oil prices and production.


 


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Australian research says TV can kill

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

People who spend more than four hours in front of the television each day have a far higher risk of dying early than those who limit their viewing, an Australian study said Tuesday.








An employee watches a program inside an appliance store selling second-hand television in Manila July 4, 2008. (AFP Photo)

Watching the small screen for prolonged periods is also bad for your heart, according to the research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.


“Compared to people who watch less than two hours of television per day, people who watch more than four hours per day have a 46 percent higher risk of death from all causes,” researcher David Dunstan told AFP.


They also have an 80 percent increased risk from cardiovascular disease, he said.


Sitting down for long periods stops the body from using its muscles and adequately processing sugars and fats, Dunstan said.


The findings come from a six-year study into the viewing habits of some 8,800 Australians which stripped out the influence of other health factors such as age, sex, smoking, weight and exercise.


Australians watch an average of three hours a day, said Dunstan, a researcher with the Melbourne-based Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.


The study found that even people who exercised regularly were potentially hurting their bodies by sitting down for extended periods, he said.


“What these findings suggest is that in addition to regular exercise, people need to consider avoiding prolonged periods of sitting; whether it’s in front of the television, working long hours or driving for prolonged periods.


“And for TV, a specific message could be: switch off, stand up and keep moving,” the researcher said.


 


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Iran confirms nuclear scientist killed in bomb blast

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

The university lecturer killed in a bomb blast in the Iranian capital on Tuesday was a nuclear scientist, Tehran’s prosecutor told ISNA news agency.


“Massoud Ali Mohammadi was a lecturer in nuclear energy and no suspects have yet been arrested,” Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said, adding that he was climbing into his car when a nearby parked motorbike exploded.


Another Iranian news agency, Borna news, said Mohammadi was a “senior nuclear scientist of the country,” quoting unnamed sources.


 


Source: AFP


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S.Lanka president offers pre-vote concessions to Tamils

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Sri Lanka’s president on Tuesday offered concessions to ethnic Tamil demands for greater autonomy ahead of elections in which the minority community could play a decisive role.








Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa presents his election manifesto to a group of monks in Colombo January 11, 2010. (AFP Photo)

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is seeking a second term, said he was proposing power-sharing arrangements to give minority Tamils a greater say in the legislature and address long-standing demands for devolution of power.


Tamils account for 12.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population and have long pushed for regional autonomy.


The quest for an independent homeland was the main plank of a decades-long armed insurgency by Tamil Tiger separatists that only ended last year with a final military victory over the rebels.


“The end of the war does not mean the end of the conflict,” Rajapakse told foreign correspondents at his tightly guarded Temple Trees residence in Colombo. “We need to politically address the needs of Tamils.”


His remarks came days after the main Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance, pledged to support his main presidential challenger, former army chief Sarath Fonseka.


Both men are from the majority Sinhalese community. If they split the Sinhalese vote at the January 26 polls, then the Tamil vote could prove the deciding factor.


Rajapakse had called the election two years ahead of schedule hoping to benefit from the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers.


But as the architect of the military victory, Fonseka can also lay claim to credit for ending the conflict.


Fonseka has offered to scrap the all-powerful presidential system and revert to a parliamentary democracy, while Rajapakse is offering more representation for minority Tamils in new legislative arrangements.


“All this will require amending the constitution and seeking the approval of the people at a referendum,” Rajapakse said. “The ordinary people simply want to live in peace, but there is a demand and a need for a political settlement.”


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Clinton plays down row over US air base in Japan

In World on January 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to defuse a dispute over a US air base in Japan as she arrived in Hawaii for Tuesday talks with her Japanese counterpart Katsuya Okada.








A Ginowan city government file photo shows a rooftop message referring to the controversial US Futenma airbase on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. (AFP Photo)

Launching her fourth Asia tour since becoming the chief US diplomat a year ago, Clinton also said Washington intends to “exercise influence” in Asia for another century and serve as a stabilizing force against China’s rising power.


Clinton, speaking to reporters on the way to Honolulu Monday on the eve of talks with Okada, played down the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa that has caused tension in the post-war alliance.


“The significance of our meeting is to reaffirm the centrality of our 50-year-old alliance,” Clinton said on a tour that will also take her to Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.


“It (the alliance) provides stability for the region. And I think it’s much bigger than any one particular issue,” Clinton said, suggesting the alliance trumped the problem of the base.


Tokyo’s relations with its most important ally have been strained over the Futenma base, which Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has suggested should be moved off the southern island of Okinawa or even outside Japan altogether.


The center-left Hatoyama, who took power in September, has pledged to review past agreements on the US military presence, including plans to shift Futenma within Okinawa, and to deal with Washington on a more “equal” basis.


But Clinton urged patience as a new party adjusts to power in Japan and put a positive spin on US ties with the new government, praising it for setting up a five-billion-dollar fund for Afghanistan.


“So we see our relationship with Japan as very broad and deep, and security is obviously a critical part of that, but it is by no means the only part,” she said.


Yomiuri newspaper and other reports said Sunday that Clinton and Okada will make final arrangements Tuesday for an anniversary statement by the US and Japanese leaders stressing the contribution of their alliance to global peace.


The security treaty, signed on January 19, 1960, has formed the bedrock of the post-war Japan-US alliance, under which pacifist Japan relies on a massive US military presence to guarantee its security.


During her two-day stop, Clinton will visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, which commemorates those who died in the Japanese surprise attack on December 7, 1941 that brought the United States into World War II.


She will then travel to Papua New Guinea for talks on climate change and economic development before heading to New Zealand and Australia, where she will discuss similar issues as well as international security.


Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, said Clinton will also seek advice from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks Chinese, about how the United States can better work with China.


Beijing’s support is key for US goals in curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea as well as combating climate change.


For her first overseas trip as chief diplomat, Clinton visited Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China last February. She traveled to India and Thailand in July, then Singapore and the Philippines in November.


Her repeated visits to Asia are a “signal that the United States intends to be a leader and exercise influence in this region for this century as well as last century,” Clinton said.


“There was a general sense on the part of our allies and partners in the region that we were withdrawing,” she said, suggesting the previous administration of president George W. Bush had neglected the region.


“But people want to see that the United States is fully engaged in Asia so that, as China rises, there is a presence of the United States as a force for peace and stability, as a guarantor of security.”


Clinton played down the risk of tension with China as President Barack Obama’s administration supports the sale of defensive arms to Taiwan and engages with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.


“What I’m expecting is that we actually have a mature relationship that fits the description that was given at the summit between our two presidents that it be positive, cooperative and comprehensive,” she said.


“That means that it doesn’t go off the rails when we have differences of opinion.”


 


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Students from remote areas exempted from foreign language requirement

In Vietnam Education on January 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Students in remote regions, many of whom do not have the opportunity to study foreign languages, will have an alternative subject as an option in their high-school graduation exams this year.









An English class at Luong The Vinh secondary school, District 1, HCM City (Photo: SGGP)


This is one of the decisions made at a conference held Monday in Hanoi to review last year’s high-school and university admissions and examinations and discuss possible changes to the high school graduation and university entrance exams this year.


But in other areas, a foreign language will continue to be one of three compulsory subjects in high-school exams in addition to literature and mathematics.


The Ministry of Education and Training asked relevant agencies to continue to gather opinions from participants to consider further changes.


The ministry seeks to make changes to examination regulations to make testing better and more effective while still keeping it simple, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Thien Nhan said.


The final changes related to exam regulations are expected to be announced on January 31.


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Intel announces scholarships for engineering students

In Vietnam Education on January 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm








(File) Intel grants scholarships to 49 students on May 29, 2009 at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology.

Intel Products Vietnam Ltd. Co. announced January 11 a scholarship program starting next July for third- and fourth-year technology students.


Together with the US’ Portland University, it will grant scholarships to 20-25 students from the University of Technology, International University, University of Education and Techniques, HCM City University of Science, and Danang University of Technology, among others.


After graduation in June 2012, the students will return to Vietnam and work for the company in Ho Chi Minh City.


Candidates can register at http://www.pdx.edu/cecs/intel-vietnam-study-abroad-program from January 15 to February 15.


Intel’s US$1 billion chip plant in the city is expected to open in the second quarter of this year.


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Shell-shocked Togo leaves as Africa Cup opens

In Vietnam Sports on January 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm

LUANDA, Jan 10, 2010 (AFP) – Togo’s national football team, still reeling from a rebel attack that killed two of their squad, traveled home Sunday against the players’ wishes as the Africa Cup of Nations kicked off in Angola.


President Jose Eduardo dos Santos denounced Friday’s attack by separatist rebels in the northern enclave of Cabinda, where the teammates were flying back to Togo with their two slain colleagues.


“We condemn this act of terror, but the competition will continue in Cabinda,” Dos Santos said as he opened the tournament. “We are together, may the best man win.”


His government and African football officials pleaded to the last second for Togolese authorities to allow the players to fulfill their wish to compete in the tournament to honour their slain colleagues.


“It’s very sad. It’s hard for Africa and for us. These things are part of life, you have to accept it,” Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor told AFP at the airport in Cabinda.


The team later arrived home in Lome on a special government plane, where it was met at the airport by Prime Minister Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, members of the government and sports officials, an AFP correspondent reported.


Cabinda is to host seven of the tournament’s 22 matches, but with Togo’s goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale still in critical care at a South African hospital, their prime minister ordered the team home.


“We understand the position of the players who want to in some way avenge their dead colleagues, but it would be irresponsible for the Togolese authorities to allow them to continue,” Houngbo earlier told reporters in Lome.








Players of Angolan and Malian national football teams take a minute of silence to pay respects to the Togo team casualties at the opening match of African Cup of Nations football championships CAN2010 between Angola and Mali at November 11 stadium in Angola’s capital Luanda on January 10 (AFP PHOTO)

Rebels ambushed the Togo convoy as they drove into the Cabinda enclave from neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville on Friday, leaving players cowering under their seats during a 20-minute gunbattle with security forces.


Goalkeeper Obilale was airlifted to a Johannesburg hospital to undergo surgery to treat gunshot wounds to the lower back and abdomen.


“He is ventilated at the moment, it’s still early stages at the moment,” a hospital spokeswoman said. “He is in critical condition but he stable.”


Separatist rebels threatened to carry out more attacks, saying they had warned Confederation of African Football (CAF) boss Issa Hayatou against holding matches in Cabinda.


“This is going to continue, because the nation is at war, because Hayatou persists,” said Rodrigues Mingas, secretary general of the Forces for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Military Position (FLEC-PM).


“We wrote two months before the Nations Cup to Mr Issa Hayatou to warn him that we were at war. He did not want to take our warnings into consideration,” Mingas told AFP by telephone.


“They were warned, they knew it, and they closed their eyes.”


Mingas’s faction is one of several groups battling for independence in small but oil-rich Cabinda, a cornerstone of Angola’s economic boom, despite a 2006 peace agreement.


Mingas now lives in exile in France, and a French foreign ministry spokesman on Sunday vowed a response to his comments.


South African President Jacob Zuma condemned the shooting as “shocking and unacceptable”, but brushed away speculation that the attack could affect his nation’s hosting of the World Cup in June.


He “reiterated that South Africa remains 100 percent ready to host the FIFA World Cup, and dismissed speculation that the Angolan incident had any bearing on the World Cup tournament in South Africa,” his office said in a statement.


Despite the sombre mood in Cabinda, spirits soared in Luanda, where cars honked and pedestrians blew trumpets to celebrate Angola’s opening match against Mali.


However, Mali was able to wipe out a four-goal deficit to draw 4-4 with the hosts.


The tournament was meant as a coming-out party for the oil-rich nation after decades of civil war, and Angola put on a splashy opening ceremony with fireworks, laser lights and traditional dancers enacting scenes from the country’s history.


The normally traffic-clogged streets were deserted as Angolans gathered on rooftops and huddled around televisions to watch the game.


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Africa Cup of Nations opens with condemnation of rebel attack

In Vietnam Sports on January 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

LUANDA, Jan 10, 2010 (AFP) – The Africa Cup of Nations opened Sunday with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos condemning the rebel attack that killed at least two members of the Togo squad, but insisting the games would go on.








Malian fans celebrate a 4:4 tie during the opening match of African Cup of Nations football championships between Angola and Mali at the November 11 stadium in the Angolan capital Luanda on January 10, 2010. AFP PHOTO

The gun attack Friday in the restive northern province of Cabinda has cast a pall over the opening of Africa’s premier football tournament, which had been meant as a coming-out party for the oil-rich nation after decades of civil war.


“We condemn this act of terror, but the competition will continue in Cabinda,” Dos Santos said. “We are together, may the best man win.”


Togo’s government has dispatched a plane to return its team home, even though players wanted to contest the 16-nation competition to honour their assistant coach and a team spokesman killed in the attack claimed by separatist guerrillas.


Coach Hubert Velud told AFP in Cabinda that the team was ready to leave, but Angolan authorities and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) were said to be in talks with Togolese officials in a last-minute effort to convince the team to stay.


Cabinda is to host seven of the tournament’s 22 matches, but with Togo’s goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale still in critical care at a South African hospital, their prime minister ordered the team home.


“We understand the position of the players who want to in some way avenge their dead colleagues, but it would be irresponsible for the Togolese authorities to allow them to continue,” Houngbo told reporters in Lome.


Captain Emmanuel Adebayor told a French radio station that Togo President Faure Gnassingbe had personally told the team to return, a conversation that turned the team’s decision.


“We all decided to do something good for the country and play to honour those who died,” said Adebayor, a Manchester City striker. “Unfortunately, the head of state and the country’s authorities have decided otherwise. We will pack up and go home.”


South African President Jacob Zuma condemned the shooting as “shocking and unacceptable”, but brushed away speculation that the attack could affect his nation’s hosting of the World Cup in June.


He “reiterated that South Africa remains 100 percent ready to host the FIFA World Cup, and dismissed speculation that the Angolan incident had any bearing on the World Cup tournament in South Africa,” his office said in a statement.


Rebels ambushed the Togo convoy as they drove into the Cabinda enclave from neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville on Friday, leaving players cowering under their seats during a 20-minute gunbattle with security forces.


Separatist rebels threatened to carry out more attacks, saying they had warned CAF boss Issa Hayatou against holding matches in Cabinda.


“This is going to continue, because the nation is at war, because Hayatou persists,” said Rodrigues Mingas, secretary general of the Forces for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Military Position (FLEC-PM).


“We wrote two months before the Nations Cup to Mr Issa Hayatou to warn him that we were at war. He did not want to take our warnings into consideration,” Mingas told AFP by telephone.


“They were warned, they knew it, and they closed their eyes.”


Mingas’s faction is one of several groups battling for independence in small but oil-rich Cabinda, a cornerstone of Angola’s economic boom, despite a 2006 peace agreement.


The Cabinda shooting had security forces on edge in the capital Luanda in the run-up to Sunday’s opening game. In one incident, police fired into the ground after a driver failed to make a stop, witnesses said.


Goalkeeper Obilale came through surgery in a Johannesburg hospital for gunshot wounds to the lower back and abdomen.


“He is ventilated at the moment, it’s still early stages at the moment,” a hospital spokeswoman said. “He is in critical condition but he stable.”


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