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24 March 2004

State Department Noon Briefing, March 24, 2004

United Arab Emirates/Closure of Embassy Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates/Closure of Consulate General Dubai, Saudi Arabia/Status of Embassy Riyadh, Bahrain/Demonstration/Status of Embassy Manama, Mauritius/Closure of Embassy Port Louis, Mauritania/Status of Embassy Nouakchott, Visa Waiver Program, Deputy Secretary Armitage to Testify to the 9/11 Commission, Israel/Palestinians, Libya, China, Japan/China

State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli briefed.

Following is the State Department transcript:

(begin transcript)

U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing Index
Washington, DC
March 24, 2004

BRIEFER: Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman

-- United Arab Emirates: Closure of Embassy Abu Dhabi
-- United Arab Emirates: Closure of Consulate General Dubai
-- Saudi Arabia: Status of Embassy Riyadh
-- Bahrain: Demonstration/Status of Embassy Manama
-- Mauritius: Closure of Embassy Port Louis
-- Mauritania: Status of Embassy Nouakchott
-- Visa Waiver Program/Letter to Representative Sensenbrenner
-- Deputy Secretary Armitage to Testify to the 9/11 Commission

-- Hamas
-- Roadmap/Further Discussions/Disengagement Plan

-- Assistant Secretary Burns' Meetings
-- Message from President Bush to Colonel Qadhafi
-- Elimination of Weapons Programs
-- Reciprocal Steps toward Normalization
-- Ending Support for Terrorism
-- Release of Fathi El-Jahmi
-- Status of U.S. Interests Section
-- Centers for Disease Control Team Visits
-- Status of Frozen Libyan Assets

-- Government Objections to U.S.-VISIT Fingerprinting Program

-- Status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands



MR. ERELI: Good afternoon, everyone. I don't have any announcements so who would like to have the first question?

QUESTION: Could you bring us up to date concerning the security situation in American embassies in the Middle East?

MR. ERELI: How about doing it worldwide? Because that's probably the best way to do it.

Let's go first to the United Arab Emirates where the Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the Consulate General in Dubai were closed to the public today in response to specific and credible threat information directed at the Embassy. Today was the last day of the workweek in the United Arab Emirates, so the Embassy and Consulate will assess their security posture over the weekend, i.e., Thursday and Friday, and come to a decision about reopening on Saturday.

The Embassy also issued a Warden message to the American community to advise about the temporary closure, and also indicated that there was -- we had not threat information targeting the community at large, that the threat information was against the Embassy specifically.

In Saudi Arabia, the Embassy was closed to the public for less than an hour today, beginning shortly before nine a.m. After that hour closure, it resumed normal operations. The closure was in response to reports of an explosion elsewhere in the city. I think when it was found that there had been no explosion, the all-clear sign was given and the Embassy opened up again.

In Bahrain, there was a demonstration of approximately 300 students outside the U.S. Embassy in Manama in protest against the killing of Sheikh Yassin. They -- the demonstrators approached but did not actually reach the Embassy, threw rocks at the Embassy. The Bahraini police dispersed the crowd. Their support was excellent. No one was hurt. There was no damage to the Embassy. The demonstration lasted about an hour and we temporarily shut down the Embassy during the demonstration but reopened once it was over.

And finally, in Mauritius, our Embassy in Port Louis has temporarily closed to the public in response to a threat directed specifically against the Embassy. The Embassy is assessing its security posture and will determine when it reopens based on that assessment. The Embassy also issued a Warden message advising the American community of the closure and is working with security and law enforcement officials in Mauritius to investigate the matter.

QUESTION: Was the Embassy closed in Bahrain by the -- related to the assassination of Sheikh Yassin?

MR. ERELI: No, it was temporarily closed for about an hour in response to the demonstration outside the Embassy.

QUESTION: Yesterday in Mauritania, can you say what happened there?

MR. ERELI: Mauritania -- my understanding is that we received a threat, we investigated it, and it was determined that it did not justify closing the Embassy and the Embassy stayed open.

QUESTION: When you talk about specific threats in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, what do you mean by that? I mean, can you elaborate? Is it this kind of chatter --

MR. ERELI: I really can't. I can just tell you that the information that we had was of sufficient credibility and specificity that the responsible officials felt that it was necessary and prudent to close the Embassy to the public.

QUESTION: Adam, local police have apparently arrested someone in connection with this in Abu Dhabi. What do you -- do you have any details about who was arrested and what the connection was?

MR. ERELI: The Abu Dhabi police did arrest a man outside the U.S. Embassy this morning at about 11:30 in the morning. I cannot comment on his nationality or what he was doing, but I can confirm that they did -- that the Abu Dhabi police did arrest somebody.

QUESTION: I mean --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) be arrested. He must have been doing something. I mean, he just wasn't walking by.

MR. ERELI: He was -- it was assessed that he was of sufficient threat that they arrested him, but specifically what his activities were, I'm not in a position to say.

QUESTION: And you don't know if he is the one who caused the threat which temporarily suspended the operation?

MR. ERELI: Right, right.

QUESTION: Is this because you don't know or you can't say for security reasons or some other reason?

MR. ERELI: It's because I -- because for security reasons.

QUESTION: Can you just say -- the threat was against the Embassy and the Consulate, or one or the other?

MR. ERELI: It was against the Embassy, but it was felt that it was important to close the Consulate as well.

QUESTION: Talking about Bahrain, you said that the police did an excellent job of stopping people from reaching the Embassy?


QUESTION: That's what you said?


QUESTION: Does that mean that the people in Bahrain don't have the right to protest? Was illegal demonstration that they could not go and protest in front of the American Embassy?

MR. ERELI: No. No, they protested, but I think their -- you'll have to talk to the Bahrainis, but my understanding is there is a zone around the Embassy which is closed to pedestrian traffic or closed to traffic and -- or circulation, and that they kept them out of that zone.



QUESTION: New subject, at this point?

MR. ERELI: Okay. I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Were there threats to any other embassies in --

MR. ERELI: Not that -- I've given you everything I know as of now.

QUESTION: Do you think that was related to the violence in the Middle East and the American embassies in the Gulf, specifically, will be a soft target, or is this nothing to do with current events in Gaza?

MR. ERELI: I would refer you to the worldwide -- the public announcement that we put out yesterday on worldwide caution, and also caution for the Middle East, where we pointed to a number of factors of concern in recent days that justified the new announcements. That includes the killing of Sheikh Yassin as well as the possibility for demonstrations. And this was, we felt, something that was important to do to remind the traveling public and remind American citizens in the region of the need to sort of remain vigilant, remain careful and consider their own personal security in light of new circumstances.

QUESTION: On Port Louis, we're curious to know what provoked the threats in Port Louis?

MR. ERELI: It was a threat against the Embassy.

QUESTION: Right. But is it related to what's going on anywhere particular in the world? (Laughter.)

MR. ERELI: I'm sure it is related to something going on somewhere in the world. But, you know, I'll put it this way, threats against our embassies are not new, threats against Americans are not new. And this is a, I guess, a fact of -- an unfortunate fact of life that we've been living with for some time, and that I think we can -- we are prepared to live with for the immediate future.

But I'm not in a position to tie the threat in Port Louis to any specific event or set of circumstances in the world.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: In the Worldwide Caution in the Middle East announcement yesterday and then the Israel Travel Warning, or whatever they were, the series that went out last night, one of the reasons that you guys said that you were putting these out was threats from Hamas to retaliate against U.S. interests (inaudible). Dr. Rantisi, the new leader of Hamas, this morning said that Hamas would not, in fact, be targeting U.S. interests, although it would continue to do things against the Israelis.

In light of this new information, is there any suggestion of revising these warnings to eliminate it, or do you believe in any way that the threat that you thought existed yesterday is in any way diminished at all by what Rantisi had to say today?

MR. ERELI: I've seen what -- we've seen what Rantisi said. I think when threats are issued by terrorist organizations against American citizens and against American interests, we take those threats seriously.

QUESTION: But, I guess, are you confident that, in fact, members of Hamas did make threats against the United States?


QUESTION: You're confident that that did happen?

MR. ERELI: Yes, they publicly said it. They publicly said it.

QUESTION: You're aware of them independently of certain news reports that said that they had?

MR. ERELI: We believe we have sufficient basis and cause to issue a Worldwide Public Announcement and an announcement for the Middle East based on what was said yesterday.

QUESTION: Do you take his renunciation seriously?

MR. ERELI: I think that we need to be on our guard and that we face a dangerous situation and it is prudent to take extra precautions in light of that situation.

QUESTION: Is there a history of Hamas striking American targets in the past?

MR. ERELI: That is less of a concern, I think, than what we see as the evolving circumstances and conditions on the ground in the last several days.

QUESTION: When was the last time we'd had such a rash of threats against our embassy? Have you seen it?

MR. ERELI: I couldn't -- you know, I couldn't tell you --

QUESTION: Is it rare?

MR. ERELI: There are, I think, periodic outbursts of public anger and violence that necessitates such actions. It is not unprecedented.

Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: Could we have an update on Libya, please, as to what's left to go before we normalize relations?

MR. ERELI: Okay. Is that -- everybody ready to move to Libya?

QUESTION: Iran. (Inaudible.)

MR. ERELI: Okay. Well, let's --

QUESTION: Is that part of (inaudible)?

MR. ERELI: If we're done with the security situation, we'll go to Libya and then we'll go to the broader political issues. On Libya, let's begin by talking about the very good meeting that Assistant Secretary Burns had in Tripoli yesterday with Colonel Qadhafi. As you all know, this was the first senior U.S. official to meet with Colonel Qadhafi since our Embassy in Tripoli was closed by Chargé William Eagleton in February 1980. And the meeting represents what we view as the continued evolution of a dialogue with senior Libyan Government officials regarding U.S.-Libyan bilateral interests.

The discussions, as I said, were very positive, and reflected a gradual step-by-step normalization in our bilateral relationship that was made possible by Libya's historic steps to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and MTCR-class missiles, and to adhere to its renunciation of terrorism.

Assistant Secretary Burns delivered a message to Colonel Qadhafi from President Bush that confirmed the excellent progress that Libya has made in implementing its weapons of mass destruction and missile commitments and that allows us to look forward to continued improvements in our bilateral relations.

I would emphasize in this the words "gradual", "step-by-step". This is a process that is going to move one step at a time. And where it ends up depends on, basically, reciprocal steps. And I'm not going to preview at this point the end result. I think what we can say is, so far the progress has been excellent, so far we have a lot to show for the engagement.

We have tremendous achievements in helping Libya to forgo its weapons of mass destruction programs. We've lifted the ban on passport. We've facilitated the travel of Americans to Libya. We've allowed American companies with pre-sanctions interests in Libya to negotiate reentry agreements. We're looking at -- we've invited the Libyans to set up an Interests Section here. We're sending -- we've sent and will continue to send medical assessment and educational assistance teams to Libya.

So the trend lines are all positive, but I'm not going to get ahead of ourselves here.

QUESTION: Does it count that you might be able to fill in some detail as to what yesterday's meeting might have outlined as what's left to go? Can you tell us that?

MR. ERELI: I'd refer you to the statement that we put out yesterday where we talk about, you know, the importance of addressing UN resolutions on Pan Am 103 as well as potential cooperation in Africa and political and economic modernization that need to be addressed for fully normal relations to be reestablished.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: You talk about reciprocal steps. Seems to me they've taken some rather large strides and the U.S. hasn't done much in response. In whose court is the ball?

MR. ERELI: This is -- I mean, I think -- I would dispute the notion that we haven't done much. I think that where we are now compared to where we were a year ago is pretty noteworthy, and that it's in response to Libya doing some pretty significant things.

There are additional things that need to be done, particularly, in the area of terror, as well as, I think, continuing to follow through on the initiatives that have already been made in the disarmament. And a lot has been done but it's not over yet, and there are a number of things, I think, that based on what Libya does, we can do.

So it's -- you know, the goal is normal bilateral relations. Getting there -- there is still a long way to go to get there. We've made important progress, but it's not something you can just do in one big leap.

QUESTION: I know. But -- all right -- let's -- you mentioned terror briefly. Are you telling them what they must do to get off the terrorism list? And is there still a terrorist presence in Tripoli?

MR. ERELI: What we've said is that we've noted that Libya has curtailed support for international terrorism and continues to maintain contact with some past terrorist clients. In the area of terror, the name of the game is consistency over time, and so therefore, time is a factor.

QUESTION: Would you still push Libya on internal reform, for example, and on human rights issues like political opposition (inaudible)?

MR. ERELI: Assistant Secretary Burns did raise the issue of human rights, and we welcomed Libya's decision to invite Amnesty International to visit Libya. And we also welcomed the recent release of political oppositionist Fathi El-Jahmi.

QUESTION: Which is a man, isn't it?


QUESTION: Yeah, because the President thought it was a woman.

MR. ERELI: I presume it's a man.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. ERELI: And Assistant Secretary Burns encouraged further actions of this nature.


QUESTION: Yeah. What's the status of your liaison team that's there now? Have they actually established an Interests Section? If they have, where exactly is it? And under who, which country's aegis is it operating?

MR. ERELI: Let me check on the sort of technical details of -- there is an Interests Section, but where it's operating from, I'll have to check on [for] you.

QUESTION: Well, I don't need to know a street location. I'd just like -- but, you know, it's got to be under someone else's embassy, or at least technically under the --

MR. ERELI: It could be in a -- it's under the Belgian -- Belgian is still our protecting power. QUESTION: Belgium? All right.

MR. ERELI: But I don't know what physical location we're operating at.


MR. ERELI: Charlie.

QUESTION: You referred to medical help, I think that's there or going.

MR. ERELI: Both.

QUESTION: And yesterday somebody alluded to "it's in the works."

MR. ERELI: Yeah.

QUESTION: So is this the CDC team? (Inaudible), what details on that?

MR. ERELI: There was a team that went in February, and there was another team that's planning a trip in the near future. My understanding is the next team going is going to be working with the Libyans on ways to treat and to prevent river blindness, and that the first team was more of an assessment team.

QUESTION: Are both of these teams from the CDC?

MR. ERELI: I'll have to check where they're from.

QUESTION: Could you tell us about the status of frozen assets, Libyan frozen assets in the United States?

MR. ERELI: I'll have to check on that for you.

QUESTION: Adam, is the notion that Qadhafi may have ordered the shooting down of Pan Am 103, is that no longer an issue? Is this something the United States wants to know?

MR. ERELI: I think what we've said is that we are -- actually, let me get you the specific language on that before offering an opinion.

QUESTION: You mentioned that there were steps on Africa as well. I'm presuming that since that's not really Assistant Secretary Burns' field, that someone from AF was with him? And exactly what are you talking about there? Are you talking about his ties with Mugabe in Zimbabwe or with -- in Liberia or Sierra Leone? And does the United States have any position on Qadhafi's desire to have the African Union headquartered in Libya?

MR. ERELI: I'm not aware that there was any representative from Africa Bureau on this trip. I think there is a range of issues dealing with Africa that we want to discuss with Libya as part of our ongoing dialogue.

And as far as the PanAfrica Union - or the PanAfrica Union goes, that's an idea that's out there but not one that we've really actively engaged on.

QUESTION: And just the last thing on this. In your current rapprochement with Qadhafi, are you prepared to retroactively drop your opposition to Libya having chaired the UN Human Rights Commission last year?

MR. ERELI: We're looking forward, Matt, not backwards.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Well, on China, the Chinese Government has raised objection to the U.S.-VISIT program to have fingerprints of Chinese visitors to the States. Do you have any comments on that? Could there be any change in policy?

MR. ERELI: I would note a couple of things on that score. Electronic fingerprinting of applicants for United States visas is a worldwide requirement. It is not targeted against any one country. It is a means for verifying identity and there are provisions for the protection of privacy in this process.

It is an integral part of processing at more than 100 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The electronic fingerprinting of applicants for visas in Beijing, for U.S. visas in Beijing, began this Monday, and that by October 26th, 2004, it will be implemented in all 211 visa-issuing posts.

So the notion that somehow this is either targeted or an invasion of privacy, I think is just not true.

QUESTION: If the Chinese Government or any other government in the world required American citizens to do the same, would you cooperate?

MR. ERELI: I think we've done so in the past, and would note that all countries have the sovereign right to determine entry requirements of foreign nationals who apply for admission to their country.

QUESTION: Speaking of that, have you -- is there anything still happening with the Brazilian situation, or has that kind of blown over now?

MR. ERELI: I've not heard any tales from travelers to Brazil, so --

QUESTION: All right. And a related issue, are you aware of a letter that Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge sent up to the Hill yesterday having to do with biometric passport requirements for foreign countries to have biometric passport information?

MR. ERELI: Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge --

QUESTION: So you are? All you had to do was say, "Yes."

MR. ERELI: -- sent a joint letter to Congressman Sensenbrenner, who is Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In the letter, the two Secretaries point out that they believe that none of the Visa Waiver countries -- you'll recall that there are, I believe, 26* Visa Waiver countries -- will be able to produce passports in sufficient numbers by the October 26 deadline to meet the legitimate needs of the traveling public, and that therefore Secretary Powell and Secretary Ridge believe legislation is needed to extend or waive the biometric requirement for Visa Waiver country passports for two years.

QUESTION: Hasn't it -- hadn't it already been delayed once?

MR. ERELI: I believe so.

QUESTION: Can you -- and does it say in there how many -- and does that mean two years, literally, to the day? So it would be October 26th, 2006?

MR. ERELI: Right.

QUESTION: On the biometrics, was there any thought given to insistence on standardized scanning technology so that the U.S. Ports of Entry hardware would all be able to scan those incoming --

MR. ERELI: Frankly, I'm not in a position to report on what domestic procedures have been considered or evaluated. I can speak to our embassies abroad.

QUESTION: Adam, aren't you concerned that this delay basically defeats the reason for having them for now, for the next two years? If you aren't using these scans, the entire purpose of the program is moot until the --

MR. ERELI: I think it's really more of a technical issue than anything else. It's basically sort of just getting the technology done in sufficient time. The alternative, frankly, is that we have to process an additional 5 million visitors in our embassies and consulates, which is a -- would be very difficult given present staffing levels.


QUESTION: Richard, yesterday, at the very end of his comments -- sorry -- Adam -- I'm still tired. (Laughter.) At the very end of the President's comments yesterday after his Cabinet meeting, he mentioned cryptically that if conditions permitted he might be sending -- there might be a team going to the Middle East next week to look into salvaging what little is left of the roadmap.

Do you know -- do you have any idea what he was talking about, or who he was talking about?

MR. ERELI: He didn't say, "salvaging what little is left of the roadmap."

QUESTION: No, of course he didn't.

MR. ERELI: But I think to continue our discussions with the -- continue our discussions.

I believe that there will be a team going out next week. I don't have details for you on their itinerary or timing, however.

QUESTION: Is it (inaudible)?


QUESTION: The same three?


QUESTION: Adam, rumors persist --

MR. ERELI: Burns, Hadley and Abrams.

QUESTION: Rumors persist that the United States is actually negotiating with the Israelis for the separation and not just having discussions.

MR. ERELI: Let's be clear. This is an Israeli plan that the Israelis are putting forward, and we are working to make sure that it is consistent with the roadmap and does not make -- that it enhances the prospects for a negotiated settlement.

QUESTION: At what point does it become not consistent with the roadmap?

MR. ERELI: I'm not going to engage in speculative answers on hypotheticals.


QUESTION: Adam, Colombia's AUC is asking the U.S. to get --

QUESTION: No, wait, one more thing. Can we just assume, then, that the reason that they're -- the reason that they're going out there is to discuss the withdrawal, the Gaza -- the Sharon plan to withdraw?

MR. ERELI: Well, it would be part of our -- you know, the continuation of our ongoing discussions on the disengagement plan.

QUESTION: Also on Israel?


QUESTION: Have the Israelis asked for the United States' blessing and have they asked for -- is the United States asking the Israelis to alter any part of their plan, their disengagement plan?

MR. ERELI: You know, I'm not going to get into the details of the discussions. I've sort of said what -- you know, what our approach is to the issue and what our goal is, and it remains implementation of the roadmap and achievement of the President's two-state vision. That is a goal that both sides continue to publicly say they adhere to and that's where we want to -- that's where our efforts are directed.

QUESTION: But Israeli newspapers are reporting all kinds of demands that Israel is asking -- or all kind of things that Israel is seeking from the United States. Is your response to that, "No comment"?

MR. ERELI: If I were to respond to everything that's reported in an Israeli newspaper, we'd be here a lot longer than we are every day. So I'd just prefer not to do that.

QUESTION: Were they to meet -- sorry, were there to meet with Palestinian officials as well?

MR. ERELI: As I said earlier, I don't really have any details on their itinerary, so I wouldn't speculate on who they're meeting.


QUESTION: Jordanian MPs are saying they're going to be donating monthly, part of their monthly salary to the Hamas, (inaudible) Hamas attack. Is this something you are discussing with them, considering they're our allies in the Middle East?

MR. ERELI: I have not seen that report, and I don't know whether -- I'm not in a position to evaluate its veracity or potential impact, so --


QUESTION: On Colombia. The AUC says it wants the State Department and the U.S. Justice Department to send representatives to be involved in their disarming, their talks on disarmament. Have you --

MR. ERELI: In Colombia?


MR. ERELI: Okay. I haven't seen that call.

QUESTION: They call -- they want a direct and permanent channel of communication with the U.S.

MR. ERELI: Let me see if we can't get you something on that.


MR. ERELI: Matt.

QUESTION: Can you explain the thought process about why the Administration is sending Deputy Secretary Armitage up to the Hill this afternoon to speak instead of Condi Rice? I mean, I realize the reason why she is not going, or I realize the explanation. I'm just trying to figure out why him.

MR. ERELI: I really haven't been involved in the deliberations on that. I think we're trying to be as helpful and responsive as possible, and Deputy Secretary Armitage's testimony is being done in that spirit.

QUESTION: Did he volunteer to go up in her stead?

MR. ERELI: I think Deputy Secretary Armitage is willing to do whatever is asked of him by the Administration.

QUESTION: Yeah. But, I mean, I'm just trying --

QUESTION: Was his testimony scheduled from the beginning?

MR. ERELI: You'll have to ask the Commission. I don't know.

QUESTION: Yeah. But I mean, is this -- so you have no idea why, say, you know, the head of the FBI or someone else is not --

MR. ERELI: I'm not in a position to follow who the Commission has called.

QUESTION: Okay. Does he have some special knowledge of the -- I mean, other than the fact of what he would have from his position of Dr. Rice's activities over the last (inaudible)?

MR. ERELI: I'm not aware that he is testifying on Dr. Rice's activities. He's testifying on what he knew and his involvement in events.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. ERELI: One more question.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) also about Haiti. Did you talk about the Nigerian yesterday?

MR. ERELI: I think we talked about that yesterday, yes.

Mm-hmm, one more question.

QUESTION: What about Nigeria? What about the --

QUESTION: Some Chinese activists illegally landed on Japan's disputed Senkaku Islands yesterday. Do you have any comments on that?

MR. ERELI: You know, I do.

QUESTION: Oh, great.


MR. ERELI: The Senkaku Islands have been under the administrative control of the Government of Japan since having been returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972. Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security states that the treaty applies to the territories under the administration of Japan; thus, Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.

Sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is disputed. The U.S. does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands. This has been our longstanding view. We expect the claimants will resolve this issue through peaceful means and we urge all claimants to exercise restraint.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:49 p.m.)

-- In the letter, the two Secretaries point out that they believe that none of the Visa Waiver countries - you'll recall that there are, I believe, 27 Visa Waiver countries...

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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