Archive for April, 2014

Modi to be questioned by police after violating election rules.

Narendra ModiPolice opened an investigation against Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, tipped to be India’s next prime minister, after he flashed his party’s symbol and made a speech in a violation of election rules after he cast his ballot.

About 139 million people were registered to vote in the eighth round of a marathon contest pitting Modi against the ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Results are due on May 16.

Voting in his home state of Gujarat, the opposition leader, whose pro-business policies have delighted investors, brandished a white cutout of a lotus flower and made a scathing speech against Congress heavyweights – taunting them for shying away from the fight.

“The prime minister himself is not fighting the election. The finance minister is not fighting the election. All its top leaders have run away,” Modi said to cheers from a crowd at the polling station in the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad.

He snapped a “selfie” of the lotus and his finger painted with ink after voting, and posted the photograph on Twitter.

Election rules say politicians must not make public rallies or use media to “display to the public any election matter” within 48 hours of an election.

Gujarat police chief PC Thakur said a preliminary case was launched against Modi at the request of the election commission. “The Ahmedabad crime branch has begun investigations,” he said.

The maximum punishment for violating the rule is two years imprisonment, although Modi is unlikely to be charged. Politicians in India routinely face criminal cases that rarely reach the courts.

Standing in both the Gujarat town of Vadodara and the holy city of Varanasi, Modi has shaken up Indian politics with a campaign that has combined a social media blitz with up to five rallies a day. The 63-year-old has even appeared as a hologram campaigning in remote hamlets.

Turnout in Gujarat was 62 percent on Wednesday, according to the election commission, a sharp rise on the state’s tally of 48 percent in the last general election in 2009. India has seen higher voter turnout across most states so far in the staggered election.

Opinion polls give a coalition led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a strong lead and predict the worst ever result for Congress, which led India to independence from Britain in 1947 and has dominated politics ever since.

But most surveys predict the BJP will fall short of the 272 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, meaning it will need to find allies. The size of the shortfall will determine whether a Modi government can pass free market reforms aimed at reviving the economy, or be constrained by protectionist allies.

The BJP “will almost certainly beat the Congress,” said Nida Ali of Oxford Economics.

“Now they are trying to maximize the number of seats they can get, so they are not hindered by other parties. If they can get a majority, that would help in decision-making.”

Indian shares have risen 6.5 percent in 2014 through Tuesday, outperforming the 0.5 percent drop in the MSCI emerging equities index, on expectations the industry-friendly BJP would score an emphatic win. But shares have cooled of late as traders turned cautious ahead of election results.

The results of Indian elections are notoriously hard to predict, with bloc voting by caste and religion. Dramatic last-minute swings can confound experts: opinion polls got the result wrong in 2004.

In a reminder of the difficulties in converting Modi’s popularity into seats, Arun Jaitley, a possible future finance minister, risks losing a contest in the state of Punjab over anger with the state government headed by a BJP ally.

The BJP’s president, Rajnath Singh, also faces a tough fight in Lucknow, capital of the big state of Uttar Pradesh, where voters lined up at schools on Wednesday despite the blazing summer sun.

The election remains Modi’s to lose, however, and in recent days several senior Congress leaders have appeared to concede that prospects are gloomy. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said on Monday that “crucial mistakes” were made as public anger over corruption rose in 2010 and 2011.

The Congress party has governed for two terms and oversaw some of India’s fastest ever growth, but lost popularity as the economy slowed and rampant graft was uncovered.

Chidambaram himself chose not to contest this election, a decision seen by many as a sign of weakness, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is retiring.

A top adviser to Congress president Sonia Gandhi told the Times of India on Monday that the party would consider backing a non-BJP coalition led by a different party to stop Modi.

The party has since distanced itself from the comments.

“The Congress party and its allies will form the next government at the center,” said Shakeel Ahmed, a party general secretary.

Congress waged a lackluster campaign, led by Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi’s mother, Sonia, has also been a prominent campaigner, as has his sister. Some party leaders have even hinted that a spell in opposition would be welcomed.

Modi wants to break the hold of the dynasty on Indian politics once and for all. He appealed to voters to put a strong government in place.

“The voting that has happened has achieved two things. One, the mother-son government is gone. Second, a new government with a strong foundation will be in place,” he said.




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Potential Benghazi Smoking Gun revealed in released White House Emails

BenghaziNewly released emails on the Benghazi terror attack suggest a senior White House aide played a central role in preparing former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice for her controversial Sunday show appearances, where she wrongly blamed protests over an Internet video.

More than 100 pages of documents were released to the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Among them was a Sept. 14, 2012,  email from Ben Rhodes, an assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

The Rhodes email, with the subject line: “RE: PREP Call with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 pm ET,” was sent to a dozen members of the administration’s inner circle, including key members of the White House communications team such as Press Secretary Jay Carney.

In the email, Rhodes specifically draws attention to the anti-Islam Internet video, without distinguishing whether the Benghazi attack was different from protests elsewhere.

The email lists the following two goals, among others:

“To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

“To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”

The email goes on to state that the U.S. government rejected the message of the Internet video. “We find it disgusting and reprehensible. But there is absolutely no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence,” the email stated.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said the documents read like a PR strategy, not an effort to provide the best available intelligence to the American people.

“The goal of the White House was to do one thing primarily, which was to make the president look good. Blame it on the video and not [the] president’s policies,” he said.

The Rhodes email was not part of the 100 pages of emails released by the administration last May, after Republicans refused to move forward with the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director until the so-called “talking points” emails were made public.

The email is also significant because in congressional testimony in early April, former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told lawmakers it was Rice, in her Sunday show appearances, who linked the video to the Benghazi attack. Morell said the video was not part of the CIA analysis.

“My reaction was two-fold,” Morell told members of the House Intelligence Committee, regarding her appearances. “One was that what she said about the attacks evolving spontaneously from a protest was exactly what the talking points said, and it was exactly what the intelligence community analysts believed. When she talked about the video, my reaction was, that’s not something that the analysts have attributed this attack to.”

Incidentally, three leading Republicans on Monday night sent letters to the House and Senate foreign affairs committees asking them to compel the administration to explain who briefed Rice in advance of the Sunday talk shows and whether State Department or White House personnel were involved.

“How could former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, during the five Sunday talk shows on September 16, 2012, claim that the attacks on our compounds were caused by a hateful video when Mr. Morell testified that the CIA never mentioned the video as a causal factor,” said the letter, from Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina; Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire; and John McCain, of Arizona.

The Sept. 14 Rhodes email does not indicate whether there was a “prep call” for Rice, as it suggests. If the call went ahead, it does not indicate who briefed her.

National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan played down the Rhodes email saying “There were protests taking place across the region in reaction to an offensive internet video, so that’s what these points addressed. There were known protests in Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum, and Tunis as well as early reports of similar protests in Benghazi, which contributed to questions of how the attack began…. These documents only serve to reinforce what we have long been saying: that in the days after September 11, 2012, we were concerned by unrest occurring across the region and that we provided our best assessment of what was happening at the time.”

The statement did not address specific questions asking whether White House personnel, particularly Rhodes, briefed Rice before the Sunday shows, and what intelligence Rhodes relied on when he referred to the video.

The newly released emails also show that on Sept. 27, 2012 titled  “US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm” — was circulated at the most senior levels of the administration. This included going to then-deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough; then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan; Morell; and Rhodes, among others, but the comments were redacted, citing “personal privacy information.”


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Biden Attacks Republican Agenda in George Washington Speech

Joe bidenThe White House launched a new front in the battle for control of the U.S. Congress on Monday, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to outline his party’s line of attack on the Republican economic agenda.

In a speech at The George Washington University, Biden condemned the Republicans’ approach to everything from health care spending to education, saying that recently his opponents have abandoned the central bargain of an American Democracy, “opportunity for all.”

“The new Republican Party changed their mind about that bargain,” Biden said. “They adopted an orthodoxy that devalued paychecks. They tilted the tax code in favor of unearned income over earned income, inherited wealth over take home pay.”

Resurrecting some themes from his successful 2012 campaign, Biden focused a big portion of Monday’s speech on the budget put forward by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and its effect on income inequality, telling the crowd of roughly 300, “this is not your father’s Republican Party.”

“If I were you, I’d sit there and say, ‘Well this just seems like another political speech, another political fight in Washington, battling over the budget again, the next standoff or the next election, red meat to stir up the troops.’ It’s not,” Biden said to a room made up mostly of college students.

“Don’t give in to the cynicism here. Don’t fall in the trap that none of this really matters or there isn’t much of a difference we can make.”

Just as he did while serving as the chief attack dog for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, Biden painted a portrait of the Republican Party as one that is focused on shifting wealth towards those at the very top.

“This massive shift is being largely – not totally – largely driven by this incredibly narrow mindset that presumes that wealthy investors are the sole drivers of the economy, that all employees work solely by the grace of the shareholder’s capital gain,” Biden said, explaining “that’s what today’s Republican Party is all about.”

Republicans were quick to fire back, releasing statements before the Vice President left the room calling his remarks “desperate” and an effort to distract from paltry support for the President’s budget.

“Rather than throwing rocks from the sidelines, President Obama and Vice President Biden should work with Republicans in producing a budget that will lower taxes, restrain spending and create good-paying jobs,” read a statement released by Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

The group responsible for electing Republicans to the House of Representatives also pushed back against the Vice President’s fiery rhetoric, pointing out that the White House’s budget “leaves Obamacare in place, raises taxes, and never, ever balances.”

“This November, voters will see a clear contrast between Republicans who want to replace Obamacare with a patient-centered approach and Democrats who continue to defend this train wreck of a law,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Gorman said in a statement.


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India’s Congress Party turns to another Gandhi to save their fortunes

Priyanka Gandhi VadraIndia’s ruling Congress Party has turned to its last Gandhi to save it from humiliation in what is expected to be the party’s first general election defeat for 15 years.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the daughter of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, joined the election trail last week amid a growing clamour for her to succeed her brother as the party’s campaign leader.

Mrs Gandhi Vadra, known to Congress workers as “PGV”, last week took on the mantle of leadership when she toured her mother Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli constituency to shore up the “family vote”, and supported Rahul Gandhi, her brother, in Amethi at the weekend.

Disenchantment among voters and demoralisation among Congress workers over its lacklustre campaign has increased, while Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, has generated growing excitement with commanding campaign speeches throughout India.

Mr Modi has repeatedly insulted Mr Gandhi as a “shehzada”, meaning pampered prince, but he has declined to respond despite suggestions his party could lose around 100 of its 218 parliamentary seats. His party workers fear he doesn’t have the stomach for the fight and are turning to his feisty sister who has, they say, the spirit of her grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi’s memory is revered for India’s victory over Pakistan in their 1971 war.

Mrs Gandhi Vadra entered the fray earlier this month with a series of attacks on Mr Modi and other BJP leaders, which immediately boosted party morale and cast her as the “Gandhi with guts”. Party insiders say she wants to lead Congress, but will not act until her brother renounces his own leadership ambitions.

One influential figure, who asked not to be named, contrasted her “natural communication skills” and ability to “connect with ordinary people” with her brother’s “awkward, aloof” style.

Tarun Gogoi, a senior Congress leader and Assam chief minister, last week called for Mrs Gandhi Vadra to play a “greater role in party affairs”. At Shora Gangaganj in her mother’s Rae Bareli constituency, poor women in bare feet waited in fierce midday heat last week to see Mrs Gandhi Vadra. She arrived with heavy security and a phalanx of Sports Utility Vehicles and was greeted with weak chants of “Long live Priyanka Gandhi.”

Rae Bareli and Amethi have returned members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or retainers as MPs in almost all general elections. Party insiders said they believe both Sonia Gandhi and her son will win their contests, but with reduced margins amid a growing revolt over the failure to improve basic local living conditions.

Mrs Gandhi Vadra focused instead on her own concerns at public criticism of her husband, the multi-millionaire businessman Robert Vadra, who is accused of exploiting poor farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan. He denies the allegations. “I feel sad when people in politics insult me and my husband but I have taken a lesson from Indira. The more people insult you, the stronger you come out. The more you insult me the more I will fight,” she said.

Mr Vadra has raised eyebrows among Congress traditionalists by posing for magazine photographs in tight, plunging vests, pink trousers and a lycra body stocking while jogging.

Looking prim in a burgundy sari and short hair combed into a side parting, Mrs Gandhi Vadra told the villagers she had drawn strength from her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, to cope with the allegations against her husband.

“I feel sad when people in politics insult me and my husband but I have taken a lesson from Indira. The more people insult you, the stronger you come out, the more you insult me the more I will fight”, she said, her voice breaking.

At the next stop, in Harchandpur, she complained that “politics has become dirty,” while in Khiro, a tiny market town, there were signs of revolt.

“Sonia Gandhi will win, but I won’t vote for her. The Gandhis have done nothing for us. There’s no electricity, no water. Others will vote for her because she is a national leader,” said farmer Arvind Singh, 63.

“I voted for her last time but I won’t vote Congress now. Everything here is third class and our lives have not got better,” said Lal Babu, a 62 year old kitchen utensils trader.

Vir Sanghvi, a leading political commentator, said Mrs Gandhi-Vadra had long been acknowledged as a shrewd advisor who had drafted her mother’s speeches. Now is now being drawn further into the Congress leadership to defend her husband. “There is a lot of anger,” he said.

Swapan Dasgupta, a senior conservative columnist, said Mrs Vadra Gandhi is a more natural leader than her brother, but a more high-profile role holds dangers for her.

“She’s extremely imperious, her entire manner is structured around the Gandhi family, it all centres on her. There is a feeling that Rahul does not have what it takes to organise an effective Congress fightback and Congress members feel Priyanka is much better”, he said.

But as leader, she and her husband would come under even greater scrutiny than the questions she complained about to her poor village audiences last week.


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Turkey expands controversial surveillance powers

TurkeyTurkish President Abdullah Gul approved a controversial law expanding the powers of the spy agency, a move critics say will tighten the graft-tainted government’s control over state institutions.

The new legislation, adopted last week by parliament after heated debates, provides expanded scope for the MIT agency to tap private phone conversations and collect intelligence related to terrorism and international crimes.

It also offers spy agents greater immunity from prosecution and provides for prison terms of up to 10 years for journalists and others who publish leaked information.

The law was signed by Gul late Friday and came into force after being published in the Official Gazette on Saturday.

It is seen as the latest ammunition being deployed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after leaked telephone conversations implicating him in a widening corruption scandal and revealing high-level security talks on Syria became public.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) argues the law will make the agency more efficient.

Erdogan, in power for 11 years, has accused former ally Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric, and his loyalists in the police and the judiciary, of being behind the corruption probe and the leaks.

The government has reacted by embarking on a mass purge of police and prosecutors and launching an Internet crackdown that saw Twitter, used to spread the leaks, banned for two weeks.

Despite the corruption scandal and the highly criticised measures, the AKP won a resounding victory in March 30 local elections.


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The Fundraiser-In-Chief to hit the money trail again next month

Barack ObamaWith the midterm elections just six months away, President Barack Obama heads out early next month on a West coast swing that includes multiple Democratic party fundraisers.

Party officials confirmed that the President will headline a joint fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Los Angeles on May 7, and that Obama will also serve as the main attraction at a DCCC fundraiser in San Diego.

Separately, the President will headline two fundraising events for the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles on May 8, and will also attend a DNC reception in the San Francisco Bay area.

Thanks to presidential approval ratings hovering near all-time lows, Obama may not be in high demand on the campaign trail this year. But while there are a number of congressional Democrats facing challenging re-elections who aren’t screaming for Obama to stump with them, they do look to the President to bring in the bucks. Because when it comes to fundraising, Obama remains the party’s top rainmaker.

The President was the main attraction at Democratic fundraisers in Houston earlier this month and in Miami last month. The DNC says Obama’s headlined nearly 30 events for the party committee since the 2012 election. And he’s committed this year to do at least six fundraisers each for the DSCC and DCCC.

Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate (53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party), but are defending 21 of the 36 seats up in November, with half of those Democratic-held seats in red or purple states.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats from the GOP to regain control of the chamber. Political handicappers consider that a tall order, considering the shrinking number of competitive congressional districts nationwide.

The smaller and older electorate that usually turns out during midterm contests traditionally favors Republicans over Democrats. And thanks to Obama’s low poll numbers and the unpopularity of the president’s federal healthcare law, many in the GOP are increasing optimistic about their chances come November.

But Democratic strategist Paul Begala said Obama’s doing just what a sitting president should to help his party in a midterm election year.

“Presidents in mid-term elections rarely deliver votes by old-fashioned stumping,” said Begala. “Reagan couldn’t, nor could Clinton or Bush. But what they can do are two things: raise issues and raise money. With his middle-class economic agenda, he is raising big issues: equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage, pre-K, etc. Now it looks like he’s raising big money, too. That’s all a party can ask of a President in a mid-term.

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Israel breaks off Middle East talks with Palestinians

IsraelIsrael has suspended U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians in response to President Mahmoud Abbas’s unexpected unity pact with the rival Islamist Hamas group.

The negotiations had appeared to be heading nowhere even before Wednesday’s reconciliation agreement between the Palestinian groups plunged them deeper into crisis. The United States had been struggling to extend the talks beyond an original April 29 deadline for a peace accord.

“The government of Israel will not hold negotiations with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas, a terror organization that calls for Israel’s destruction,” an official statement said after a six-hour meeting of the security cabinet.

Asked to clarify whether that meant the talks were now frozen or would be called off only after a unity government was formed, a senior Israeli official said: “They are currently suspended.”

In Washington, a U.S. official said the United States would have to reconsider its assistance to Abbas’s aid-dependent Palestinian Authority if the Western-backed leader and Hamas formed a government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with Abbas on Thursday and expressed his disappointment at the reconciliation announcement.

Kerry stressed that any Palestinian government must abide by the principles of nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Kerry, who has shuttled repeatedly to the Middle East to push peace efforts, said he was not giving up hope.

“There’s always a way forward, but the leaders have to make the compromises necessary to do that,” he told reporters.

“We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities of peace. We believe it is the only way to go. But right now, obviously, it’s at a very difficult point and the leaders themselves have to make decisions. It’s up to them.”

U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry offered support for the Palestinian agreement after meeting Abbas on Thursday, saying in a statement it was “the only way to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under one legitimate Palestinian Authority”.

The deal envisions a unity government within five weeks and elections six months later. Palestinian divisions widened after Hamas, which won the last general ballot in 2006, seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007.

In an interview after the security cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to leave open a window for future talks if Abbas reversed course or reconciliation with Hamas, seen by the West as a terrorist group, fell through.

“I hope (Abbas) changes his mind,” Netanyahu said. “I will be there in the future if we have a partner that is committed to peace. Right now we have a partner that has just joined another partner committed to our destruction. No-go.”

Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni said she hoped a way could be found to return to talks. “The door was not closed today,” she told Israel’s Channel 2 television.

Wasel Abu Yousef, a top Palestine Liberation Organization official, rejected what he called “Israeli and American threats” and said a unity government would be made up of technocrats.

But Netanyahu dismissed any notion that Hamas would not be the real power behind the bureaucrats.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, championed by Kerry and aimed at ending decades of conflict and creating a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, began in July amid strong public skepticism in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The two sides were also at odds over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, activity most countries deem illegal in areas captured in the 1967 Middle East war, and over Abbas’s refusal to accept Netanyahu’s demand he recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

For Netanyahu, Abbas’s approach to Hamas offered an opportunity to withdraw from the negotiations with a reduced risk of a rift with the United States, Israel’s main ally, which also refuses to deal with the Islamist militant group.

A suspension of the talks, while casting blame on the Palestinian reconciliation venture, is also likely to calm far-right allies in Netanyahu’s governing coalition who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and territorial compromise.

For Abbas, whose official mandate as president expired five years ago, an alliance with Hamas leading to a new election potentially strengthening his political legitimacy could outweigh the prospect of any international backlash.

Palestinians have also been angered by Israel’s announcement during the negotiations of thousands of new settler housing units and what they say was its failure to tackle substantive issues such as the borders of a future state.

The next immediate steps stemming from the collapse of the talks seemed likely to be Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank.

“The sanctions will be measured. We will not cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse,” Livni said on television.

Palestinian leaders have already made clear they would seek to further their bid for nationhood via unilateral moves to join various international bodies and United Nations agencies.

The biggest threat for Israel could come in the shape of the International Criminal Court, with the Palestinians confident they could prosecute Israel there for alleged war crimes tied to the occupation of lands seized in 1967.

“Israel will respond to unilateral Palestinian action with a series of measures,” said the Israeli statement issued after the security cabinet meeting, without going into detail.

The talks had moved close to a breakdown this month when Israel refused to carry out the last of four waves of prisoner releases, demanding that Palestinians first commit to negotiating after the April deadline.

Abbas responded by signing 15 international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war and occupations. Israel condemned the move as a unilateral step towards statehood.

Asked whether the reconciliation with Hamas would incur promised U.S. sanctions, PLO Deputy Secretary Yasser Abed Rabo told Palestinian radio it was too soon to penalize a government that had yet to be formed.

“There’s no need for the Americans to get ahead of themselves over this. What happened in Gaza in the last two days is just a first step which we welcome and want to reinforce,” he said.

“But this step shouldn’t be exaggerated, that an agreement for reconciliation has been completely reached… We need to watch the behavior of Hamas on many details during the coming days and weeks on forming a government and other things.”


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