News Roundup (Week of Dec. 18-24, 2016)

news roundup

Hello, Readers! I hope you are enjoying this holiday weekend. Here is this week’s News Roundup.

Table of Contents

I have added a Table of Contents this time. Please let me know what you think




Health & Science

Commentary: Speech from Elector

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In International News …

The Russia Ambassador to Turkey Was Assassinated.

Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot dead by an off-duty Turkish police officer named Mevlut Mert Altintas. The shooting took part at the opening of an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey. Karlov was a few minutes into his speech when he was shot eight times.

Before the officer shot Karlov, Altintas shouted, “Allahu Akbar!”

After shooting Karlov, the officer shouted in Turkish: “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria.Unless our towns are secure, you won’t enjoy security. Only death can take me from here. Everyone who is involved in this suffering will pay a price.”

The shooter was taken out by Turkish special forces.

Altintas, born in 1994 and a graduate of the Izmir police academy, was part of Ankara’s riot police squad. He used his police ID to get into the gallery and stood behind Karlov before the ambassador gave his speech.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, called Russian president Vladimir Putin to inform him of the attack.

Russia President Vladimir Putin sees the shooting as provocation in order to mire Russian-Turkish relations. He said he would dispatch officials to give a full investigation into the incident.

The attack has been linked (by Erdoğan’s supporters) to Fethulla Gülen, a Turkish cleric accused of orchestrating a failed coup in July.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, was originally slated to travel to Moscow the day after the attack occurred. The purpose was to continue talks with his Russian and Iranian counterparts regarding Syria’s future. Putin has also proposed wider talks with his country, Turkey, and Iran on December 27.

As the Syrian government came closer to recapturing Aleppo, there had been more cooperation from Turkey without input from Western powers and the Gulf States.

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Berlin Market Attack Kills 12.

On Monday, a market truck plowed through the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin. Twelve people were killed in the crash and 49 were injured, 18 of them in critical condition.

Immediately after the crash, the driver ran into the direction of the Tiergarten park. A 23-year-old Pakistani man found in the park was detained and questioned; he was later let go.

Investigators later found papers belonging to Anis Amri, 24, who was from Tunisia. His fingerprints were found on the door.

Amri was believed to have murdered the Polish driver of the lorry, Lukasz Urban, 37, who was found in the passenger seat. The lorry was registered in Poland.

Between March and September of this year, Amri was under surveillance by the authorities in Berlin. They said he used six different aliases, sometimes trying to pose as Egyptian or Lebanese. He was suspected of planning a robbery in order to pay for guns, but the investigation was dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Amri Shot and Killed

On Friday, the suspected driver of the market Truck that killed 12 people in Germany was killed in a shootout in Italy. During early morning hours, two young Italian officers accosted Amri because he looked suspicious. He pulled a gun on them, hitting one in the shoulder the other officer shot Amri dead.

Amri took advantage of Europe’s open-border Schengen pact in order to travel undetected as he reached Italy via France. His final destination was Sesto San Giovanni, a working-class suburb in Milan.

There were conflicting reports of Amri’s whereabouts. One account put him in Denmark. German police suspected he was still in Berlin because of possible injuries.

In a video released soon after Amri’s death, he pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The video is posted on the terrorist group’s Amaq news agency.

Amri had an extensive wrap sheet.

In Tunisia, he served 5 years in absentia for aggravated theft with violence.

He was first seen in Europe in 2011, when he reached Lampedusa (an Italian island) by boat. After lying about being a minor, he was enrolled in a school at Catania, Sicily. He would later serve four years in prison for setting fire to the school.

Amri arrived in Germany in July 2015.

Amri was due to be deported in June, but there was a delay in paperwork from Tunisia.

Tensions in Europe

In July, the Nice attack was carried out by a Tunisian-born man. During the Bastille-Day celebration, a lorry plowed through crowds, killing 86 people. The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for that attack.

On Friday two brothers were detained in Duisburg for planning another attack in Germany. This time, police said the attack was meant to hit the CentrO shopping center in Oberhausen, which is near the Dutch border.

The unnamed brothers, aged 31 and 28, were from Kosovo.

The series of Islamist attacks throughout Europe, including two that created the Syrian refugee crisis in Germany, has led to the legitimization of right-wing groups throughout Europe. Many people blame Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for Syrian refugees from 2014-2015.

People in opposition to open borders what more border controls. The German government wants to make deportations easier.

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Syrian Forces Declare Total Victory in Aleppo.

On Thursday, the Syrian army announced that it had fully recaptured the city of Aleppo. At the time, the last group of rebel fighters were evacuated from Aleppo and moved to rebel-held territories in Syria.

In return, people from the pro-government villages of al-Foua and Kefraya were bused to Aleppo. The government’s forces insisted upon including those two villages as part of the deal being brokered by Turkey and Russia.

On Friday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the latter’s role in helping the former reclaim Aleppo. Putin said he, Assad, Turkey, and Iran agreed to hold peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Earlier this year, peace talks held in Geneva broke down.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran had already held peace talks in Moscow on Tuesday. During the talks, all parties agreed it was time to foster a peace deal in Syria. Putin chose Kazakhstan as the located to held the talks since the country is a close Russian ally.

Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov suggested that the talks are could to occur in mid-January 2017. However, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said preparations needed to be made before we could talk about any timetable.

In short, Assad sees his victory in Aleppo as leading to a political resolution.

In the meantime, Rebels were said to launch shells into Aleppo a day after they were evacuated from the city. State television reported that 3 people were killed in the shelling. Also on Friday: airstrikes resumed in the countryside.

The water authority cut off water in Damascus since rebels polluted the water supply with diesel. Damascus uses water from the al-Fija spring in Wadi Barada valley, which is currently held by rebels. The valley was among the areas hit with airstrikes on Friday.

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Russian Made an Announcement About Its Military Plans.

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his military for its successes in Syria while saying that Russia would need to bolster its overall defenses. Putin said the country would need to boost its nuclear capabilities in order to “neutralize all threats” and to penetrate any missile defense systems.

Putin also said the display by the military in Syria would serve to attract foreign buyers of Russian weapons. The Russians employed Sukhoi warplanes and MiG and Kamov helicopers, and other modern armaments during the campaign against the rebels.

The Russian army will have four S-400 anti-missile defense systems delivered next year.

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Taiwanese President Plans to Visit the U.S.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, is planning a trip to the United States. According to an announcement she only plans to meet with Congress during a stopover. Tsai is going on a 9-day trip that will begin on January 7, 2017 and will take her to the United States, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

China has raised objections to the U.S. visit, mainly due to suspicions that arose over a call between Tsai and Donald Trump. It is suspected the Taiwanese president will meet with the president-elect directly, or at least meet with members of his transition team.

China has become increasingly aggressive on the subject of Taiwan, which is self-sustaining. Various actions in the South China Sea are undoubtedly connected to the island’s relationship with China. Additionally, China has put economic pressure on São Tomé and Príncipe to break ties with Taiwan.

About São Tomé and Príncipe

This week, it has been reported that São Tomé and Príncipe, a series of islands west of the African continent, had broken ties with Taiwan. Trade between the two countries amounted to only $358,000 a year, but the move leaves Taiwan with about 20 international allies and the Holy See.

São Tomé and Príncipe is also an aid recipient and it has had a financial crisis since March, so China applied pressure on the nation conceivably by offering it more aid. At least, that was surmised in the Taiwanese newspaper China Times on Thursday. In the same paper, São Tomé and Príncipe reportedly asked Taipei for $210 million in financial assistance.

The Taiwanese government declined but offered to give $2 million in aid. São Tomé and Príncipe asked for $4 million and a new economic cooperation agreement.

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SouthChina Sea Update

On Tuesday, China returned the unmanned underwater drone it confiscated last week. The UUV was deployed by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship manned by civilians. The drone was returned to the United States via the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin.

The Chinese said a lifeboat was used to take the drone in order to make sure the UUV did not impede the safety of navigation. However, the Americans say the Chinese boat followed the USNS Bowditch and the origin of the drone was never in doubt. Furthermore, the Pentagon said the actions of the Chinese showed a lack of professionalism needed between navies.

This incident has shades of the 2001 incident when U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. The plane was dismembered and the electronics systems were removed.

Did you know? The USNS Bowditch is a 20-year-old vessel named after American astronomer and navigator Nathan Bowditch.

Why the South China Sea Is Important

The South China Sea is important because it contains fisheries and may have oil and gas reserves. Also, it is estimated that $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the body of water. Territories which have a claim in the area are: China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China has spent the past years building and fortifying its Spratly Islands, which it built by dredging sand onto reefs. China maintains the islands are for maritime purposes and civilian usage.

However, as pointed out last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provided satellite images that may show the installation of antiaircraft guns and weapons systems on the manmade islands. This may be seen as a threat to the other nations in the region. The U.S. maintains it does not want to see any nation with a claim in the region to militarize any part of it. The U.S. also maintains “freedom of navigation” patrols to that end.

The previous administration in the Philippines held a tribunal to oppose China’s taking of the Shoul reef in 2012. There was a decision in July 2016 which stated China had no right to claim most of the South China Sea and there was a rebuke of the construction of the artificial islands. However, Dutarte has backtracked on harsh rhetoric against China in a move to try to soften relations between nations.

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U.N. Draft Criticizing Israel

On Thursday, two Western officials announced said the United States intended to allow for a United Nations resolution against Israeli settlements on land Palestinians want for a state. President Barack Obama would abstain from a vote. This would mark a departure from normal United States actions regarding Israel.

On Friday, the United States held true to reports and abstained from its veto on the resolution. This allowed the 15-member Security Council to approve the measure with 14 votes.

For the resolution the pass, it would need 9 affirmative votes with no vetoes. The Security Council members who could veto such a resolution are the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain (which also abstained from the vote).

In response to the news on Thursday, Israel asked Donald Trump to apply pressure and applied some of its own. Trump immediately supported Netanyahu and had a meeting with Egypt’s president and asked the White House to use its veto.

The draft resolution was proposed by Egypt, a member of the Security council, in coordination with Palestinians. At one point, Egypt attempted to delay the vote due to pressure from Israel. However, other members on the Security Council (Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, and Venezuela) gave Egypt an ultimatum by late Thursday, lest the council would put the issue to a vote immediately.

Obama’s abstention, while rare, is not surprising considering the frosty relationship he has long had with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and concerns voiced by officials within the Obama Administration. Some worry the building of Israeli settlements jeopardizes a two-state solution. Administration officials cited the exasperation connected to the lack of a comprehensive and meaningful peace process.

The United States had previously abstained on a vote on a resolution called for a ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza in January 2009. There was also a 1979 resolution passed by the Security council critical of Israeli settlements; the U.S. abstained from that vote, as well.

The territory Israel is settling was captured in a 1967 war against its Arab neighbors. The land includes the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It should be noted that one of Netanyahu’s main constituencies comes from settlers.

Israel receives $3 million in aid from the United States each year. Egypt also receives aid from the United States. Senegal, which gave an affirmative vote on the resolution, receives aid from Israel, as well.

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Deutsche Bank Penalty

Deutsche Bank, headquartered in Germany and with holdings worth €1.6 trillion, has agreed to pay a $7.2 billion fee to United States regulators based on the bank’s role in the 2008 financial crisis. A civil penalty of $3.1 will be paid along with a $4.1 billion payment for consumer relief will go to U.S. homeowners. The United States had initially asked for $14 billion dollars.

The U.S. was conducting an investigation into mortgage-backed securities offered by banks around the world from 2005-2007. In short, the offerings in question were questionable loans offered to unqualified borrowers. Often, people with poor credit or insufficient funds were offered loans that were bundled together and sold off.

Banks due to pay fines include Credit Suisse, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. Credit Suisses will pay $5.28 billion; about $2.48 billion will go to U.S. authorities and $2.8 billion in compensation will go to consumers over the next five years. Citigroup has to pay $7 billion, JP Morgan Chase was ordered to pay $13 billion, B of A paid $16.7 billion, and GS settled for $5.1 billion earlier this year.

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In National News …

President Obama’s Pardons

President Barack Obama has granted a record number of pardons and commutations during his tenure. As of Monday, the president has granted 78 pardons and he has commuted the sentences of 153 inmates. In total, he has granted 1,324 people clemency.

What were Obama’s criteria for granting clemency? Most of the people who have been pardoned or who saw their sentences reduced were nonviolent drug offenders and those in drug treatment programs. Others were viewed as leading productive lives outside of prison, so a pardon would restore all rights, including the right to vote, to the former inmates.

Obama’s acting out of a sense of justice. He has noted that the American criminal system was being used to lock up people for long periods of time, even for minor offenses.  And minorities are disproportionally being incarcerated.

In 2014, the Clemency Project was created as a way for Obama’s lawyers to screen applicants and make suggestions. The consortium was formed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Associated, and the Nation Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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Here Is This Week’s Trump Update.

Electoral Votes

On Monday, December 19, the electoral vote commenced. A few electors dissented. In Colorado, a dissenting Democratic elector was replaced after he voted for Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.

Michael Baca voted for Kasich after signing a pledge he would vote for Clinton. He took a gambit that more electors would defect in order to keep Trump out of the White House. Baca possibly faces perjury charges.

Trump received 304 electoral votes. In all, Trump lost 2 votes while Clinton lost 5 from their election-night totals (306-232).

Trump’s Cabinet

This week, Kelly Conway was chosen as Trump’s Chief Counsel.

On a weird note, do you think John Bolton was passed over due to his mustache?

According to one piece from the Washington Post, Trump hires people based on appearance. Of course, he will hire people who are attractive, as his closest aides will attest. But Trump also hires people who look right for the job.

Example: Mark Calamari was hired by Trump after the real estate magnate saw Calamari expertly eject hecklers from a U.S. Open match in 1981. Calamari is the Chief Operating Officer of Trump Properties and has worked for his boss for 35 years.

Several of Trump’s associates said they thought that John R. Bolton’s brush-like mustache was one of the factors that handicapped the bombastic former United Nations ambassador in the sweepstakes for secretary of state.

“Donald was not going to like that mustache,” said one associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “I can’t think of anyone that’s really close to Donald that has a beard that he likes.”

Trump’s Worrisome Tweets

On Thursday, Trump unleashed a tweet shortly after Russia said it should increase its own nuclear capabilities. The tweet reads:

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The comments are worrying since they might mark a preference for the United States to change nuclear policy. Trump could possibly violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if not the 2011 START Treaty with Russia.

Only five nations are given exceptions to carry nuclear weapons. These are the five nations with veto power on the U.N. Security Council: The U.S., Russia, China, France, and Great Britain.

China said it would closely watch the policies of Trump. Beijing’s stated position on the issue supports the abolishment of Nuclear weapons.

It should be noted that nuclear stockpiles need to be maintained. Nuclear material degrades over time, and the U.S. has already had to refashion older weapons. Modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal could cost about $1 trillion over a 30-year span.

Also on Thursday, Trump tweeting about the high cost of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co. government projects.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D–OR) went on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show on Thursday. When asked about Donald Trump’s recent tweet about nuclear weapons, Merkley said Trump has the “maturity of a 5-year-old” and such talk was very worrying.

The tweet was apparently made shortly after Putin announced that he wanted to bolster Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Putin said Trump’s tweet was “nothing new” based on the comments Trump made during the 2016 campaign. Putin also said he cared not to enter an arms race but expressed his view that Russia is already stronger than its enemies.

Trump Foundation

Today, Trump announced that he planned to dissolve the Trump Foundation. The move was said to rid himself of questions of impropriety, although he has refused to turn over his businesses to a blind trust.

The Trump Foundation has come under fire. For instance, the foundation gave money to And Justice For All, a political organization. That’s against IRS rules. Also, it has been said that Trump used funds from his foundation to pay off debts.

The Trump Foundation was founding in 1998. Since 2006 Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump have run the organization.

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Here’s a DNC Update.

Last week, Labor Secretary Tom Perez formally put his hat in the ring for DNC chair.

Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota is Perez’s leading opponent in a field that includes New Hampshire Democratic Chair Raymond Buckley and South Carolina Chair Jaime Harrison.

The leading candidates for DNC Chair want to differentiate themselves from President Obama. They blame the president for weakening the party and want to move away from allowing any future Democratic president to take over the DNC like Obama did.

Harrison and Buckley want to focus on local races, as opposed to national ones. In particular, Harrison pointed out how Obama chose past DNC Chairs and how funding for smaller races was decreased each year. She said more attention needs to be paid to down-ticket races and off-year elections in order to build momentum and grow the party.

Out of all candidates, Perez had experience running an organization the size of the DNC and he is a favorite of “establishment” Democrats. Ellison strongly differs with Obama on the issues of social security, deportation, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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Republicans Want to Reintroduce FADA

Republican Senators Ted Cruz (from Texas) and Mike Lee (from Utah) want to re-introduce the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) once Trump takes office. The legislation barely got a House hearing in 2015.

What would FADA do? If passed, the bill would stop the government from taking punitive action against businesses which discriminate against LGBTQ consumers. (Ironically, the punitive action is described as “discriminatory action.”)

The legislation is based on two beliefs:

  1. “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”
  2. “Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”

In the House of Representatives, 172 members support the bill. Of the congressman in question, only one Democrat, Daniel Lipinski (from Illinois), supports it.

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In Regional News …

Four More Were Charged in Connection to the Flint Water Crisis.

Four former leaders in Flint, Michigan are facing criminal charges based on their roles in the Flint Water Crisis, bringing the total number of persons charged to 13. Those being charged now include former emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, and former city employees, Howard Croft and Daughter Johnson.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette brought charges against all 13 state and city imployees. He announced the new charges on Tuesday.

Schuette said the four individuals being charged now conspired to borrow tens of millions of dollars under false pretenses.

The Cause of the Crisis

The Flint Water Crisis began when the city’s officials decided to switch the city’s water supply. In April 2014, Flint, Michigan began taking water from the Flint River in order to save money. Before, Flint, a city of 100,000 people, had taken water from Detroit, which uses Lake Huron as its water source.

The problem: The Flint River has a high salt content. So, when that water was running through pipes, the salt corroded the metal and increased the level of lead in the drinking water.

High levels of lead in water will lead to long-term negative effects for the people who drink the water. Long-term exposure can impact people’s nervous systems, developmental skills, and even death. Twelve people in Flint have died of Legionnaires’ disease since the change in water source.

Residents Ignored

In late July 2015, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s former Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore sent an email to a top health department official six months before Snyder declared a state of emergency over Flint’s water supply. Muchmore was frustrated because the lead levels should have been investigated more closely by the state but the city’s residents were being ignored.

Text of Email:

From: Muchmore, Dennis (GOV)
Sent: Wednesday, July 22, 2015 3:04 PM
To: Lyon, Nick (DCH)
Subject: Flint

I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the DEQ samples. Can you take a moment out of your impossible schedule to personally take a look at this? These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight.)

Sheer Negligence

Marc Edwards, is a professor at Virginia Tech who tested Flint’s water and obtained Muchmore’s email via a Freedom of Information request. Edwards said the problem could have been corrected early on and it would have only cost $100 a day for the water to be treated.

As it turns out, the city of Flint ended up paying $80-$100 dollars a day, anyway. In Dec. 2016, the city switched back to Detroit’s water supply and started coating the pipes with phosphates to prevent lead and other metals from leaching into the water.

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There Was a Mistrial in the Lee Baca Corruption Case.

On Thursday, a mistrial was called in the corruption case of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Eleven people on the jury wanted to move to acquit Baca while one dissenter would not budge.

Baca was on trial for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He allegedly interfered with and FBI investigation into civil rights abuses and corruption within L.A. County jails. In 2013, it was alleged that sheriff’s officials threatened to arrest an FBI agent. Baca was willing to plead guilty about lying to the FBI regarding his knowledge of the incident, but the judge felt it was too lenient.

Since this was a mistrial, the case could be retried if federal prosecutors chose to. A status meeting will be held on Jan. 10.

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In Health & Science News …

An Ebola Vaccine Might Be Available In 2 Years.

Trials for an Ebola vaccine were conducted in Guinea, headed by the World Health Organization. (Guinea was one of the West Africa countries where an outbreak was the most pronounced. The outbreak only ended this year.)

The results with the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine show 100% effectiveness. Of nearly 6,000 people given doses in the trials, none showed signs of the virus 10 days later. Twenty-three people in a group of equal size who were not given doses developed signs of Ebola sometime later.

Merck plans to make 300,000 doses of the vaccine. GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, will provide $5 million for a stockpile.

Experts say a vaccine may be available in 2018.

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In place of my own commentary, I would like to share a video of one Maine elector who voted for Bernie Sanders on his first ballot. He addresses a topic that is close to my heart and involves one constant complaint I had during the 2016 presidential election.

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