Nation & World News

After Bitter Split, Palestinian Factions Pledge To Reconcile

By Greg Myre on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Seven years after a violent split, the two main Palestinian factions said Wednesday that they are attempting to reconcile and form a national unity government within five weeks.

The Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas have tried several times to resolve their feud, but those efforts quickly unraveled.

So will this attempt fare any better?

The plan, announced after talks in Gaza City, calls for a unified government by the end of May, ending a rift dating to 2007 that left the PLO in charge of Palestinian affairs in the West Bank while Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip.

Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said, “This is the good news we tell our people — the era of division is over.”

There are countless reasons to be skeptical, but both sides have been weakened by the split and have strong reasons for seeking reconciliation.

For the PLO, there’s the prospect of improving the Palestinian negotiating position with Israel.

The PLO is headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s been making little headway in peace talks with Israel. Since Abbas has had no control over Gaza for the past seven years, he faces the persistent criticism that he lacks the authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been the main driver of the current round round of Palestinian-Israeli talks, which are set to expire at the end of this month with no breakthrough in sight.

A Palestinian unity deal could boost the standing of Abbas, if only among his own people. However, both the U.S. and Israel were critical in their initial reactions.

Hamas, meanwhile, has struggled to effectively run Gaza, the small, overcrowded territory along the Mediterranean coast that suffers from chronic poverty and limited contacts with the wider world.

Israel has always maintained strict controls over the borders of Gaza, which depends heavily on imports for many basic goods.

Gaza has been further squeezed since last summer, when Egypt’s military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are extremely close allies, and that translated into a greater flow of people and goods along the shared Eygpt-Gaza border.

But the Egyptian military has a hostile relationship with Hamas and has imposed tighter controls along the frontier. This has included shutting many of the smuggling tunnels that traveled under the border and propped up Gaza’s feeble economy.

The Palestinian unity plan calls for Abbas to head a unified government that would include members of both the PLO and Hamas. That’s sure to involve weeks of intense haggling over sensitive issues such as who will control the Palestinian security forces. Abbas’ party, Fatah, is the main faction in the PLO, which consists of multiple groups.

Assuming a deal is reached, the Palestinians would hold a new election within six months, an event with the potential to reopen old wounds.

The PLO long dominated Palestinian politics, but Hamas won the last Palestinian election in 2006. A year of uneasy relations followed, and the factions waged a brief but bloody battle in Gaza in 2007, with Hamas taking full control of the territory.

The PLO has remained in charge of the West Bank.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking shortly before the Palestinian deal was announced, said of Abbas:

“Does he want peace with Hamas, or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace. So far he hasn’t done so.”

Shortly after the Palestinian deal, Israel launched an air strike in the northern Gaza Strip that wounded 12 civilians, including children, Reuters reported, citing a Health Ministry official. The Israeli military called it “counter-terrorism operation,” which came two days after Palestinians fired rockets from the area into Israel.

Greg Myre, the international editor at NPR.org, was based in Jerusalem from 1999-2007 and is the author of This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Update at 4:01 p.m. ET. Complicate Efforts:

NPR’s Emily Harris reports from Jerusalem that almost immediately after the agreement was signed “Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off the next peace talks session.”

The U.S., meanwhile, said it was disappointed by the deal.

“This could seriously complicate our efforts,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a briefing. “Not just our efforts but the efforts of the parties to extend their negotiations.”

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Obama Assures Japan Of U.S. Security Commitment

By Scott Neuman on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 1:02 pm

President Obama, at the start of a four-stop trip to Asia, sought to reassure Japan that the U.S. is on its side in a dispute with China over the tiny Senkaku islands chain, which has led to bluster and naval jockeying between the two countries in recent years.

In a letter to Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe that was published in the leading daily Yomiuri Shinbun, Obama said that the U.S. security policy with Tokyo “is clear.”

Obama wrote that he opposes “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands” and said the disputes need to be resolved “through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion.”

Reuters writes:

“The challenge for Obama during his week-long, four-nation tour will be to convince Asian partners that Washington is serious about its promised strategic “pivot” towards the region, while at the same time not harming U.S. ties with China, the world’s second-biggest economy.

“The difficulty of Obama’s balancing act was underscored hours before he arrived on Wednesday night when Chinese state media criticized U.S. policy in the region as ‘a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant.’”

The trip, with stops also in Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, was rescheduled from October, when the government shutdown forced the president to stay in Washington.

The Washington Post says:

“On one level, the president has a long list of tasks awaiting him: He will try to make headway on trade negotiations with Japan, work to ease tensions between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, foster a closer alliance with the government in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and shore up support for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.

“But it is also, by its very nature, an interim step in the administration’s larger project of seeking to ‘rebalance’ its relationship with the most economically and socially dynamic region of the world at a time when China continues to expand its influence there.”

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American Journalist Kidnapped By Ukraine’s Pro-Russia Insurgents

By Scott Neuman on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 8:02 pm

An American journalist operating in eastern Ukraine has been kidnapped by pro-Russian gunmen, the separatists said Wednesday.

Simon Ostrovsky, working for Vice News, was seized at gunpoint early Tuesday by masked men in the restive eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the insurgents, confirmed Wednesday that Ostrovsky was being held at the local branch of the Ukrainian security service, seized more than a week ago, according to The Associated Press.

“He’s with us. He’s fine,” Khorosheva told the AP, who said the journalist was being held because he’s “suspected of bad activities,” which she refused to explain. She said insurgents were holding the journalist pending their own investigation.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the reports.

“We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage-takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement,” Psaki said.

The reports come in the same week as a visit by Vice President Biden to Ukraine.

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7 Weeks Before World Cup, Rio Is Rocked By Riot

By Mark Memmott on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 1:02 pm

“A Rio de Janeiro slum erupted in violence late Tuesday following the killing of a popular local figure, with angry residents setting fires and showering homemade explosives and glass bottles onto a busy avenue in the city’s main tourist zone,” The Associated Press writes.

CNN says that “residents from the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela took to the streets of Copacabana after a young male dancer was found dead, state-run Agencia Brasil said. The residents told Brazilian media they blame the police for the death, accusing authorities of mistaking the dancer for a criminal.”

The protests led to at least one other fatality. According to the BBC, “a man was shot dead during the violence on Tuesday night.”

The violence came just seven weeks before the start of soccer’s World Cup, which is being staged in Brazil. The clashes with police were also just a few hundred yards from the venue where Olympic swimming events are due to be held in 2016.

As NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has reported, in advance of those high-profile competitions authorities have been concerned about security and the possibility of protests during the events.

Last November, she noted, gangs of youths swarmed Rio’s tourist beaches, committing mass robberies. “Add to that the possibility of massive protests by an angry public that has had to finance the hugely expensive construction of the stadiums and you have a litany of woes that isn’t showing Brazil in its best light,” she said on All Things Considered.

The AP reminds us that:

“Police began an ambitious security program in 2008 to drive the gangs from such slums and for the first time set up permanent posts. It is part of Rio’s overall security push ahead of the World Cup that begins this June and the Olympics the city will host.

“So far, 37 such ‘police pacification units’ have been created covering an area with a population of 1.5 million people.

“But there have been repeated complaints of heavy-handed police tactics that have ended in the deaths of residents, and that is what set off the latest clashes, residents said. More than two-dozen police face charges from a high-profile case in a different shantytown, when investigators said a local man died while being tortured by police.”

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Government Will Try To Persuade Sherpas To Stay On Everest

By Mark Memmott on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm

The news from high up the world’s tallest mountain continues to be confusing, with some reports implying that a boycott by Sherpas means there will be no climbs to the summit this year and others indicating that there will still be attempts to reach the top.

Based on what we can glean from various news accounts, it appears that some expeditions have indeed canceled their climbs. But it also seems that at least some of the estimated 400 Sherpas on the mountain may be willing to continue on — meaning there will be summit attempts in coming weeks.

Whether there will or won’t be any expeditions to the summit this year became an issue Friday when an avalanche buried 16 Sherpas who were working to set up ropes and make other preparations for the expeditions that employ them. Thirteen bodies were recovered. The other three Sherpas are missing and presumed dead.

It was the deadliest day ever recorded on Everest.

Other Sherpas began discussing a boycott, both out of respect for those who were killed and to press for better insurance, larger payments to the families of those who were killed and other demands. The Nepalese government agreed to some of the requests, but many of the Sherpas are said to be unhappy with the response.

Here’s some of what’s being reported about the likelihood of expeditions this year:

– “Nepal’s government decided on Wednesday to send a delegation of officials to the base camp of Mount Everest to cool anger among Sherpas over its response to last week’s deadly ice avalanche in which at least 13 guides were killed,” and another three Sherpas remain missing and are presumed dead. (Reuters)

– “Sherpa guides packed up their tents and left Mount Everest’s base camp Wednesday in an unprecedented walkout to honor 16 of their colleagues who were killed last week in the deadliest avalanche ever recorded on the mountain, climbers said. … American climber Ed Marzec, 67, said by phone from the base camp that Sherpas were loading their equipment onto a helicopter that had landed at the camp. … But he said some smaller companies were hoping to go ahead with their climbs, and it was not clear whether all of the approximately 400 Sherpas on the mountain would join the boycott.” (The Associated Press)

– “The [Nepalese] government today decided to send a high-level team, led by a senior official, to the Everest base camp as soon as possible to convince the protesting Sherpas to resume the suspended climbing activities. Notwithstanding the government announcement to meet their demands regarding welfare and relief in the wake of fatal avalanche in the Mount Everest, the mountaineering support staff and guides are still divided over whether to resume the halted expeditions.” (The Himalayan Times)

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Death Toll Rises, Hopes Fade At Site Of Korean Ferry Disaster

By Mark Memmott on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm

The already slim hope that anyone might still be alive aboard the South Korean ferry that sunk a week ago was all but extinguished Wednesday with the news that divers have found no air pockets in key areas of the ship.

That word came as the number of bodies recovered from the Sewol edged above 150. As of midafternoon Wednesday in South Korea, “152 people had been confirmed dead while 150 others remained missing,” Yonhap News reports. The water where the ship went down just off the southern coast of South Korea is said to be about 160 feet deep.

More than 320 of the estimated 476 people who were on board when the ferry capsized and sank were students from a high school in Ansan, near Seoul, who were traveling to a resort island. Most of the 300 or so people who likely died were teenagers. Officials have said that 174 people were rescued before the ferry flipped over.

According to CNN:

“Divers have found no air pockets on the third and fourth floors of the sunken ferry Sewol, South Korean authorities said Wednesday. … Searchers had been focusing on the third and fourth levels of the five-floor vessel, as they believed many of those still missing were likely to be there. Most passenger bedrooms are on the fourth level of the now upended ship.”

Yonhap News adds that “divers successfully entered a third-deck cafeteria, where most of the students are believed to have been located at the time of the accident …. but did not find anyone, officials said.”

In related news, “authorities have arrested four more crew members from the ferry” the BBC writes. “Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry’s crew survived and prosecutors say the 11 arrested were on the bridge when the ship listed and sank within two hours of distress signals being sent.” It’s been reported that the captain initially told passengers to remain in their cabins or below decks, and didn’t issue an order to evacuate for at least 30 minutes.

Also, police “raided offices of the operator of [the] sunken ferry, its affiliates and a related organization Wednesday as part of a widening probe into the cause of the disaster,” Yonhap News says. “Investigators of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office raided Cheonghaejin Marine Co, the Sewol’s operator based in the coastal city, just west of Seoul, as well as some 20 offices of its affiliates and a religious group in Seoul believed to be related to the owner family.”

“The focus of the probe will be to see if the owner’s family has accumulated huge wealth by embezzling corporate funds while failing to fulfill its duty of properly managing the companies,” a prosecutor told Yonhap. “Tracing their hidden assets is also needed to pay damages to the victims and their families.”

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Book News: Gabriel García Márquez Left An Unpublished Manuscript

By Annalisa Quinn on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Gabriel García Márquez left behind an unpublished manuscript when he died last week at age 87, Cristobal Pera, editorial director of Penguin Random House Mexico, told The Associated Press. Pera added that García Marquez’s family has not yet decided whether to publish it. Meanwhile, the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia published an extract of the work, tentatively titled We’ll See Each Other in August (En agosto nos vemos). In the excerpt, a middle-aged woman named Ana Magdalena Bach has a fling during her annual trip to a tropical island to put flowers on her mother’s grave. She stays at a hotel overlooking a lagoon full of herons. Ana, though she’s married, meets a man at the hotel and begins an affair with him. The excerpt has a strong sense of place — García Márquez’s descriptions are lush with flowers and tropical life – and a ripple of eroticism travels through it, from the touch of perfume Ana puts behind her ear at the beginning of the chapter to the thunderstorm during her encounter with the man from the hotel.
  • David Foster Wallace’s estate and his former publisher have come out in opposition to the making of the forthcoming film The End of the Tour, which is based on Wallace’s conversations with journalist David Lipsky. In a press release, the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wrote, “This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago for a magazine article about the publication of his novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.” It added that “there is no circumstance under which the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust would have consented to the adaptation of this interview into a motion picture, and we do not consider it an homage.” Wallace committed suicide in 2008.
  • The Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, will be awarded to Mexican author Elena Poniatowska on Wednesday in Spain. Previously won by Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez among others, the prize is worth 125,000 euros (about $173,000).
  • A previously unpublished story by Shirley Jackson, the writer best known for her story “The Lottery,” is printed in The New Yorker. “The Man in the Woods” is a short, sinister story about a man named Christopher who walks through dark woods to find an isolated house surrounded by trees, “the forest only barely held back by the stone wall, edging as close to it as possible, pushing, as Christopher had felt since the day before, crowding up and embracing the little stone house in horrid possession.”
  • Comedian Megan Amram has a book deal for Science…For Her!, which she calls “a fun, flirty, Cosmopolitan-like textbook that is tailored to you, ladies.” On her website, Amram describes the book as “a science textbook written by a lady (me) for other ladies (you, the Spice Girls, etc.),” and adds that “it has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history: female brains aren’t biologically constructed to understand scientific concepts, and tiny female hands aren’t constructed to turn most textbooks’ large, extra-heavy covers.” Amram’s book may be a parody, but it’s not that all that far from reality: A 2013 book titled Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape combines math tips with advice on “how to attract guys,” and uses handbag shapes to explain quadrilaterals.
  • “You have no legs and your name is alliterative.” “A coachman treats you saucily.” “You are either ruddy, stout, or flint-eyed.” The Toast has some tips for telling whether you are in a Charles Dickens novel. (Full disclosure, I’ve written previously for The Toast.)
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Stowaway Teen May Have Been Trying To Reunite With His Mom

By Mark Memmott on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 12:01 pm

The latest word about the teenager who survived a ride Sunday from California to Hawaii in the frigid wheel well of a jet is that he may have hoped to eventually get to Somalia to be with his mother.

Because he’s a juvenile, authorities and news outlets have not named the teen. But Hawaii News Now reports that:

“Family members of the 15-year-old stowaway did not want to talk to news reporters outside their Santa Clara [Calif.] home, but Maui police sources say the boy ran away and was trying to get to Africa. He ended up on a Hawaiian Airlines jet because it was the closest plane to the fence he scaled. He also told police he got confused by the writing on the plane.”

The boy reportedly lived in California with his father and stepmother. His age was originally being reported as 16, but news accounts and authorities have now settled on 15.

According to NBC Bay Area:

“The teen’s former English teacher at [San Jose's] Oak Grove High, Keith Chung, [said] he did not know much about the teen, other than that he had moved to the U.S. from Africa three years ago and that his father was a cab driver.

“Chung said the boy had some recent run-ins in his English-learning class. Those issues, on which Chung did not elaborate, had culminated in a transfer to Santa Clara High. …

“Student Emanuael Golla, 18, told NBC Bay Area that the teen had just transferred to Santa Clara High about five weeks ago. Golla described him as very quiet, someone who kept to himself.”

Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reports that the director of the Mineta San Jose International Airport has “called the unusual security breach involving a teen stowaway who sneaked onto the airfield a ‘very serious’ incident that could spark changes in how the airport protects its passengers.”

There is video evidence, The Associated Press says, indicating the teen scaled a fence and got onto the airport’s tarmac about seven hours before the Hawaiian Airlines flight took off. The wire service adds that:

“While it’s not clear how the teen spent all that time, FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu said the teen was sleeping in the plane before the 8 a.m. PDT takeoff. He ‘literally just slept on the plane overnight,’ Simon said.”

The young man was still in Hawaii on Wednesday, according to news reports. Authorities have said they do not plan to charge him with any crime. The AP notes that “Hawaii’s Department of Human Services has said child welfare officials were arranging his safe return to Northern California.”

The wire service also writes that:

“The FAA says about one-quarter of the 105 stowaways who have sneaked aboard flights worldwide since 1947 have survived. Some wheel-well stowaways survived deadly cold and a lack of oxygen because their breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow down.”

We explored that part of the story on Monday in this post: You Can Survive A Flight In A Jet’s Wheel Well, But Probably Won’t.

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‘Object Of Interest’ Found In Search For Malaysian Jet

By Mark Memmott on April 23rd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 1:02 pm

After 6 1/2 weeks of false leads and conflicting information about what may have happened to the jet and the 239 people on board, Wednesday’s headlines about the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 need to be viewed with considerable caution:

– ” ‘Object of interest’ found on Western Australian coast.” (CNN.com)

– “MH370 search: Debris washed up on WA coast to be investigated.” (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Even CNN, which continues to report every bit of news about the missing plane, is approaching this latest development with some wariness:

“Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan described the object as appearing to be sheet metal with rivets.

” ‘It’s sufficiently interesting for us to take a look at the photographs,’ he said.

“But Dolan also added strong words of caution: ‘The more we look at it, the less excited we get.’ ”

The Australian government, meanwhile, is circumspect:

“Western Australia Police have attended a report of material washed ashore 10 kilometres east of Augusta and have secured the material.

“The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is examining the photographs of the material to determine whether further physical analysis is required and if there is any relevance to the search of missing flight MH370.

“The ATSB has also provided the photographs to the Malaysian investigation team.

“No further information is available at this time.”

Update at 11:20 a.m. ET. No “Identifiable Writing”:

“The Officer-in-Charge at the Busselton Police Station said an object in their possession, which washed up on a beach at Scott River near Augusta, was eight feet tall, half a metre wide [1.6 feet] and was an alloy type of metal,” Australia’s Busselton-Dunsborough Mail reports. “Senior Sergeant Steve Principe said the person who found the object initially held on to it for a day or two before taking it to the Busselton Regional Airport for inspection. The object was subsequently passed on to the Busselton police who took possession of it on Wednesday. Snr. Sgt. Principe also said the object did not have any identifiable writing on it.”

Augusta is about 200 miles south of Perth.

Resuming our original post, as we’ve said before:

The jet was about one hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early morning hours of March 8 (local time) when it was last heard from. Flight 370 was headed north over the Gulf of Thailand as it approached Vietnamese airspace.

Investigators believe the plane turned west, flew back over the Malay Peninsula, then out over the Indian Ocean before turning south toward Australia. They’re basing those conclusions largely on data collected by a satellite system that received some information from the aircraft. The critical question — why did it turn? — remains unanswered.

Poor weather grounded the aerial search for the jet today. But 12 ships continued the search in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, Australia.

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Obama Tours Mudslide Devastation, Pledges Solidarity With Families

By Scott Neuman on April 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: April 23, 2014 at 1:02 pm

President Obama, aboard Marine One, took an aerial tour of devastation caused by a massive mudslide a month ago that left at least 41 people dead near the town of Oso, Wash.

The president, who made a stop in the state on his way to Japan for the start of a four-stop visit to Asia, witnessed toppled trees, mud and debris from the March 22 landslide.

“We’re going to be strong right alongside you,” Obama promised the people of Oso on Tuesday.

Later, at a community church in Oso, Obama promised to stick with the families whose lives were devastated when the rain-soaked hillside gave way.

“The whole country’s thinking about you, and we’re going to make sure that we’re there every step of the way as we go through the grieving, the mourning, the recovery,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee has asked Obama to declare a major disaster in the state, making it eligible for federal financial aid, including help covering the costs of temporary housing, home repairs and the loss of uninsured property, The Associated Press says.

NPR’s Martin Kaste, reporting from the disaster scene, says the site still resembles a muddy bombing range.

“The great mounds of dirt and broken trees are dwarfed by the 600-foot-tall failed hillside where they came from,” he reports on Morning Edition. “You see wheels sticking out of the mud, in random spots, detached from their cars. There’s a house that looks like it’s been through a trash compactor; National Guardsmen gingerly climb over it, probing the gaps with sticks.”

Kaste says the stretch of Highway 530 that was inundated by mud and debris will take months to clear, and maybe longer to rebuild, according to the state Department of Transportation.

“Alongside the usual yellow ribbons for the slide’s victims, you’re starting to see protest signs, calling for speedier action,” Kaste says.

As The New York Times points out:

“Anger festers about what might have been done better to warn residents, or protect the community from the slide, which killed 41 people and left two still missing. And fear haunts the voices of many people just miles from the impact zone, who now look up at the steep Cascade mountains with different eyes.”

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