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The Yemeni Impasse: War During the Pandemic

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As of the end of spring, the coronavirus crisis has not brought any noticeable easing to the conflict in Yemen. What is more, it would seem that the warring sides decided to take advantage of the confusion that befell the external forces and change the situation on the frontlines. Despite the already worsening humanitarian situation in the country and the UN calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic, offensive operations nevertheless continued. At the same time, the state of affairs in the south of the country has been deteriorating, with those in favour of self-determination again rearing their heads.

We should know by now that an epidemic is not going to stop the hostilities in Yemen. Not even the cholera outbreak that has affected approximately one million people in the country over the past three years is enough to make the warring factions lay down their weapons. In fact, with the cholera epidemic still raging and chronic famine in many parts of the country, the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of relatively few, has gone largely unnoticed. Both the warring parties and the population at large have come to terms with the constant threat of outbreaks of various diseases (cholera, diphtheria, measles, Dengue fever, etc.) due to the lack of basic infrastructure and centralized immunization plans.

What is more, the reality of the situation in Yemen is that those fighting on the front are more likely to survive an epidemic than civilians living in overpopulated cities, where sanitary conditions are truly awful. An estimated 17.8 million Yemenis were without safe water and sanitation in 2019, and 19.7 million did not have access to adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, those on the frontlines generally eat better and, unlike the civilian population, have priority access to medical supplies and personnel. Ansar Allah (Houthi) militants are even using the coronavirus crisis to recruit new soldiers, convincing young people that it is better to die a martyr in battle than to suffer an inglorious death from the virus.

It would thus appear that the Houthis are as determined as ever to win the civil war, or at the very least to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the forces that are loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition troops. Even after the coronavirus had hit the country, the Houthis resumed ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and also launched an offensive in Marib Governorate. Clashes also broke out near the strategically important Al-Hudaydah Port.

The Battle of Marib

Marib Governorate is considered the richest province in northern Yemen, with oil and gas fields, a strategically important oil refinery and the country’s largest power plant. It is also of no small importance that Marib is a stronghold of the moderate Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Islah), which Saudi Arabia is backing in the conflict. Losing Marib will deal a serious blow to al-Islah’s positions, as well as to Riyadh’s interests in Yemen.

The pandemic provides the Houthis with an opportunity to carry out offensive actions, as the external sponsors of the Hadi government, and Saudi Arabia at the top of that list, are busy with their own domestic issues and cannot pay much attention to Yemen. There has been a noticeable drop-off in the intensity of airstrikes, for example, which has afforded the Houthis the opportunity to deploy both mobile units with light weapons and various armoured vehicles.

There is no doubt that the Houthi command is intent on capturing Marib, coordinating its campaign on the city on three fronts at once. At the same time, the main defenders of Marib are the militias of local Sunni tribes, who do not want to see a Houthi victory, but would likely be willing to work towards a compromise with Ansar Allah in order to avoid suffering endless losses. All the more so because the official armed forces exist primarily on paper and include the names of many phantom soldiers whose wages are divvied up among the commanding officers. The shortage of experienced higher-ranking personnel – a consequence of the fact that many officers do not want to cooperate with Hadi or al-Islah – has also proved detrimental to the combat capabilities of the government forces.

If the Houthis are able to capture Marib, then they will have control over almost all of northern Yemen, which will seriously weaken the positions of President Hadi. And this will open the door for further offensives in the south of the country, particularly the oil-rich Shabwah and Hadhramaut governorates, further down the line. Given the problems in southern Yemen (which we will expand upon below), the Battle for Marib may be seen as a turning point in the war.

Economic Collapse

While the coronavirus may not directly affect the military and political situation in Yemen, its economic consequences could be catastrophic for the country. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise even before the pandemic hit. According to the World Bank, between 71 and 78 per cent of the Yemeni population were living below the poverty line in 2019. And the looming global financial crisis only promises to make things worse.

For example, a global drop-off in energy prices and demand will hit government revenues, as the government had planned to increase oil production to 110,000 barrels per day and expand its exports of liquefied natural gas by the end of 2019. And energy exports accounted for approximately one-third of the country’s budget revenues in 2019. At the same time, there is a very real risk that Saudi Arabia could cut subsidies to the Yemeni government, which will greatly affect its ability to purchase food and other essential goods. Overdue wages to government officials and other state employees threaten to collapse the already weak public sector.

One of the most dangerous consequences of the coronavirus crisis has been the disappearance of remittances from abroad, as the lock-down measures introduced in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have crippled the ability of Yemeni migrant workers to make a living. What makes this situation worse is the fact that remittances are a key source of currency for the country as a whole and a means of survival for many Yemenis. In 2014, money transfers from abroad brought approximately $3.5 billion into the country, which is almost equal to the entire revenue side of the national budget.

Observers have also noted that a kind of conflict economy has emerged in Yemen that has paved the way for certain structures and people involved in the import of fuel and other vital goods to line their pockets, while others make money by redistributing humanitarian aid. The worse the situation is, the more these structures thrive, so they will continue to sabotage any attempts to restore normal economic life in the country.

Yemen is staring not only at a crisis, but at a complete economic collapse, with the paralysis of all public services, a new surge in unemployment, hunger and a fuel crisis brought about by the curtailment of imports.

The Mutinous South Has Risen Again

In addition to the onslaught of the Houthis and the collapse of the economy, the government also has to deal with the increasing fragmentation of the country. Less than six months after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement, which was supposed to put an end to the separatist movement in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (more commonly known as South Yemen), the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has returned to its secessionist roots. On April 26, 2020, the STC announced it would establish self-rule in the south of the country, which should be understood first and foremost as a refusal to even formally submit to the Hadi government.

Observers see this step as a sign of worsening relations between the STC and Saudi Arabia, which had taken measures in the months prior to weaken former proxies of the United Arab Emirates. After the latter withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, it was the Saudis who were stuck with the task of integrating the STC, a staunch supporter of the UAE, into the state structures and ensuring that the militia forces of the southern regions were receiving money and supplies on a regular basis. Instead, they put the STC on short rations in the hope, it would seem, that the soldiers who were no longer getting paid would defect to units controlled by the government. Evidently, the STC decided not to wait for this to happen and went all-in while it still had control of Aden and serious military capabilities.

Riyadh’s Difficult Position

By early May, Saudi Arabia, as the main sponsor of the Hadi government, was facing a number of challenges. On the one hand, there was increasing military pressure from the Houthis, who were threatening to take Marib Governorate. Because the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces are so weak, the Saudis may have to increase their military activity in Yemen, a move that would be fraught with casualties and cause grave damage to the country’s reputation. At the same time, there is a risk that an armed confrontation with the STC could flare up in the south, most likely in Aden, where there is a small Saudi contingent guarding the Central Bank of Yemen building.

Saudi Arabia is effectively at an impasse. Riyadh can, if it so chooses, continue with a very costly war, thus creating a situation of controlled chaos. But it is a war that Riyadh cannot win in the short or medium term. In light of the coronavirus crisis, which will soon force a number of countries in the region to reassess their priorities and scale back their foreign policy ambitions, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia could step away from the war entirely. Admittedly, it may take a few more painful military defeats for this to happen.

Expectations and Reality

By May 2020, the position of the internationally recognized government and its external sponsors had become almost untenable. Nor do the dynamics of the regional cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in many ways dictate developments in Yemen, inspire optimism. While Riyadh appears jaded by the protracted war, Tehran, despite the coronavirus and despite the economic difficulties it is experiencing, is ready to continue an active policy and support its partners in the region.

Under the circumstances, it is extremely difficult to try and make any forecasts. That said, all of the above circumstances point to two likely scenarios. If Riyadh adopts a pragmatic position, then we can expect a substantive dialogue with the Houthis, which will lead to an honourable peace or a fairly long-term ceasefire. That is the first scenario. Under the second scenario, Saudi Arabia doubles down and fierce battles rage throughout the year, potentially leading to the death of the Hadi government and the ultimate collapse of Yemen.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in political science, Associate Professor, Oriental Studies Department, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert

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Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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