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Putin: Ukraine’s Army Is A NATO Proxy Aimed At ‘Containing Russia’

Putyin speciális szemüvegben járt az egyetem laboratóriumában (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / RIA NOVOSTI / AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Ukraine’s army is a NATO proxy whose geopolitical aim is to constrain Russia.

“This is not the army, per se, this is a foreign proxy, in this case a foreign NATO legion, which, of course, doesn’t pursue the objective of national interests of Ukraine.

“They have entirely different goals, and they are tied with the achievement of the geopolitical goals of containing Russia, which absolutely does not fall in place with the national interests of the Ukrainian people,” Putin said on Monday.

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“We often say: the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian army. But in fact, who’s fighting there? Indeed, there are, in part, official units of armed forces, but for the most part it’s the so-called ‘volunteer nationalist battalions,'” Putin added.

His defiant tone comes as Russian-backed rebels launched an assault on the vital Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, killing 30 people.

Over the weekend, the New York Times noted that Ukraine and NATO have flagged “Russian troops in unmarked uniforms apparently joining the separatists in the assaults on Ukrainian positions.”

In order to understand what Putin’s anti-NATO rhetoric means, it’s important to understand how Russia sees Ukraine from the military standpoint.

nato v. russia

Here’s the basic rundown of Putin’s stance:

Russia has long viewed Ukraine as an area that separated Russia from the West, and as an added layer of protection on Russia’s western flank against NATO.

Following the fall of the USSR, Russia and Ukraine remained politically and economically involved, but Ukraine increasing kept exploring its European interests in recent years — mostly in order to grow its economy.

Meanwhile, its former president Viktor Yanukovych tended to lean pro-Russia. And ultimately in late 2013, he rejected stronger ties with Europe in favor of Russia. This led to mass protests and rioting in Kiev, and then Yanukovych’s eventual ousting.

Since then, Ukraine established a pro-Western government, which Russia sees as illegitimate.

Consequently, any currently Western help or influence in Ukraine, to Putin, looks like the West is aggressively creeping towards Russia — especially given Ukraine’s pursuit of economic integration with the West.d

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Russian-Backed Rebels Are Attacking A Strategically Vital Ukrainian City

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Ukrainian servicemen guard a street, near the body of a victim killed by a recent shelling of a residential sector, in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, January 24, 2015.

KIEV (Reuters) – At least 20 people were killed by shelling in the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday, regional police said, as a rebel leader said separatists were launching an offensive on the city, the news agency RIA reported.

The separatists have rejected more peace talks and fighting has surged to its most intense in months. The United Nations said on Friday that 262 had been killed in the previous nine days.

“Today an offensive was launched on Mariupol. This will be the best possible monument to all our dead,” RIA quoted rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko as saying at a memorial ceremony in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

He said separatists plan to encircle Debaltseve, a town north-east of Donetsk, in the next few days, the Russian news agency Interfax reported him as saying at the same event.

Mariupol city council and regional police said rebels fired rockets from long-range GRAD missile systems killing at least 20 and injuring 83. Interfax earlier said rebels had denied the attack.

Government-controlled Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, lies on a coastal route from the Russian border to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine last March.

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Mariupol sits between pro-Russian occupied areas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.

 

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk condemned the incident as a deliberate attack on peaceful citizens by the rebels, but said the real threat lay beyond separatist territories.

“The world needs to stop the Russian aggressor threatening Ukraine, Europe and global security .. The problem is in the hero-town of Moscow – Kremlin, Vladimir Putin,” he said at a meeting of security and defense chiefs.

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, Zakharchenko vowed on Friday that his forces would push on with a new offensive, as the UN said the conflict, which began in east Ukraine more than nine months ago, was now in its “most deadly period” since a peace deal was agreed last September.

At the defense meeting in Kiev, Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said in the past 24 hours there had been a serious escalation in fighting at frontlines across the conflict zone.

“Starting from Luhansk region and ending in Mariupol, everywhere illegal armed groups together with Russian units are going on the offensive,” he said.

In Mariupol, the attack started in the early morning, 76-year-old pensioner Leonid Vasilenko, who lives in the eastern suburbs of Mariupol, said by telephone.

“The walls were shaking, the window frames were shaking, paint started to crumble off the house. I hid in the basement. What else can you do? I took the dog and the cat. In the basement you could hear the earth tremble,” he said.

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A car burns on the street after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, January 24, 2015.

 

The regional police said 20 people had been killed, while city authorities reported a further 83 were injured.

President Petro Poroshenko said last week Russia had 9,000 troops inside Ukraine and called on Moscow to withdraw them, blaming it for an armed aggression. Moscow denies sending forces and weapons to east Ukraine, despite what the West says is irrefutable proof.

On Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed “criminal orders” by Ukrainian leaders on Friday for the surge in the conflict, which has killed over 5,000 people.

Ukrainian soldiers killed by pro-Russian rebels

Remains of missiles are seen as a man cleans debris after recent shelling in a yard of hospital in Donetsk (Reuters)

Three Ukrainian soldiers have been killed fighting pro-Russian rebels, the government says, as fighting engulfed a key airport in the east of the country.

The latest clashes on Thursday rocked a shaky truce as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko travelled to Italy for talks on the conflict with European leaders and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday.

“Three Ukrainian soldiers died in shooting over the last day,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists, adding that nine more servicemen had been wounded.

He said pro-Moscow separatists have been increasingly active in southern Donetsk region, where seven civilians died this week on the outskirts of government-controlled city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast.

The airport has been one of the flashpoints of the conflict in recent weeks, despite a ceasefire agreement signed between the two sides last month.

Volleys of mortars and rocket shells have been exchanged by the enemy forces in the area, and a separatist leader accused the Ukrainians of bringing heavier rocket launchers.

Lysenko said that despite an order by President Vladimir Putin at the weekend for 17,600 Russian troops along the border to return to base, Kiev has not observed a significant pullback.

Putin made the announcement ahead of Friday’s high-level talks in Milan.

The talks will address implementation of the September 5 ceasefire, which has so far proven ineffective in stopping bloodshed in a six-month conflict that has already killed more than 3600 people.

Azov fighters are Ukraine’s greatest weapon and may be its greatest threat

An Azov soldier at a checkpoint in Mariupol

The battalion’s far-right volunteers’ desire to ‘bring the fight to Kiev’ is a danger to post-conflict stability

“I have nothing against Russian nationalists, or a great Russia,” said Dmitry, as we sped through the dark Mariupol night in a pickup truck, a machine gunner positioned in the back. “But Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.”

Dmitry – which he said is not his real name – is a native of east Ukraineand a member of the Azov battalion, a volunteer grouping that has been doing much of the frontline fighting in Ukraine‘s war with pro-Russia separatists.

The Azov, one of many volunteer brigades to fight alongside the Ukrainian army in the east of the country, has developed a reputation for fearlessness in battle.

But there is an increasing worry that while the Azov and other volunteer battalions might be Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield against the separatists, they also pose the most serious threat to the Ukrainian government, and perhaps even the state, when the conflict in the east is over.

The Azov causes particular concern due to the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members.

Dmitry claimed not to be a Nazi, but waxed lyrical about Adolf Hitler as a military leader, and believes the Holocaust never happened.

Not everyone in the Azov battalion thinks like Dmitry, but after speaking with dozens of its fighters and embedding on several missions during the past week in and around the strategic port city of Mariupol, the Guardian found many of them to have disturbing political views, and almost all to be intent on “bringing the fight to Kiev” when the war in the east is over.

The battalion’s symbol is reminiscent of the Nazi Wolfsangel, though the battalion claims it is in fact meant to be the letters N and I crossed over each other, standing for “national idea”. Many of its members have links with neo-Nazi groups, and even those who laughed off the idea that they are neo-Nazis did not give the most convincing denials.

“Of course not, it’s all made up, there are just a lot of people who are interested in Nordic mythology,” said one fighter when asked if there were neo-Nazis in the battalion. When asked what his own political views were, however, he said “national socialist”. As for the swastika tattoos on at least one man seen at the Azov base, “the swastika has nothing to do with the Nazis, it was an ancient sun symbol,” he claimed.

The battalion has drawn far-right volunteers from abroad, such as Mikael Skillt, a 37-year-old Swede, trained as a sniper in the Swedish army, who described himself as an “ethnic nationalist” and fights on the front line with the battalion.

Despite the presence of these elements, Russian propaganda that claims Kiev’s “fascist junta” wants to cleanse east Ukraine of Russian speakers is overblown. The Azov are a minority among the Ukrainian forces, and even they, however unpleasant their views may be, are not anti-Russian; in fact the lingua franca of the battalion is Russian, and most have Russian as their first language.

Indeed, much of what Azov members say about race and nationalism is strikingly similar to the views of the more radical Russian nationalists fighting with the separatist side. The battalion even has a Russian volunteer, a 30-year-old from St Petersburg who refused to give his name.

 He said he views many of the Russian rebel commanders positively, especially Igor Strelkov, a former FSB officer who has a passion for military re-enactments and appears to see himself as a tsarist officer. He “wants to resurrect a great Russia, said the volunteer; but Strelkov is “only a pawn in Putin’s game,” he said, and he hoped that Russia would some time have a “nationalist, violent Maidan” of its own.

On one afternoon earlier this week the Guardian travelled with a group of Azov fighters to hand over several boxes of bullets to Ukrainian border guards. During an artillery attack outside Mariupol in the days before, the border guards had come to the rescue of a group of Azov fighters, and the bullets were their way of saying thank you.

“Everything in this war is based on personal links; Kiev does nothing,” explained the Azov’s Russian volunteer, as we sped towards a checkpoint in a civilian Chevrolet; the boot full with the boxes of bullets and rocket-propelled grenade launchers; one of the windows shot out by gunfire during a recent battle.

“This is how it works. You go to some hot spot, they see you’re really brave, you exchange phone numbers, and next time you can call in a favour. If you need an artillery strike you can call a general and it will take three hours and you’ll be dead. Or you can call the captain or major commanding the artillery battalion and they will help you out straight away. We are Azov and they know that if they ever needed it, we would be there for them.”

For the commanders and the generals in Kiev, who many in Azov and other volunteer battalions see as responsible for the awful losses the Ukrainian army has suffered in recent weeks, especially in the ill-fated retreat from Ilovaysk, there was only contempt.

“Generals like those in charge of Ilovaysk should be imprisoned for treason,” said Skillt. “Heads are going to roll for sure, I think there will be a battle for power.”

The Ukrainian armed forces are “an army of lions led by a sheep”, said Dmitry, and there is only so long that dynamic can continue. With so many armed, battle-hardened and angry young men coming back from the front, there is a danger that the rolling of heads could be more than a metaphor.

Dmitry said he believes that Ukraine needs “a strong dictator to come to power who could shed plenty of blood but unite the nation in the process”.

Many in the Azov battalion with whom the Guardian spoke shared this view, which is a long way from the drive for European ideals and democracy that drove the protests in Kiev at the beginning.

The Russian volunteer fighting with the Azov said he believes Ukraine needs “a junta that will restrict civil rights for a while but help bring order and unite the country”.

This disciplinarian streak was visible in the battalion. Drinking is strictly forbidden. “One time there was a guy who got drunk, but the commander beat him in his face and legs until he could not move; then he was kicked out,” recalled one fighter proudly.

Other volunteer battalions have also come under the spotlight. This week,Amnesty International called on the Ukrainian government to investigate rights abuses and possible executions by the Aidar, another battalion.

“The failure to stop abuses and possible war crimes by volunteer battalions risks significantly aggravating tensions in the east of the country and undermining the proclaimed intentions of the new Ukrainian authorities to strengthen and uphold the rule of law more broadly,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International secretary general, in Kiev.

Fighters from the battalion told the Guardian last month they expected a “new revolution” in Ukraine that would bring a more decisive military leader to power, in sentiments similar to those of many Azov fighters.

Despite the desire of many in the Azov to bring violence to Kiev when the war in the east is over, the battalion receives funding and assistance from the governor of Donetsk region, the oligarch Serhiy Taruta.

An aide to Taruta, Alex Kovzhun, said the political views of individual members of Azov were not an issue, and denied that the battalion’s symbol had Nazi undertones.

“The views of some of them is their own affair as long as they do not break the law,” said Kovzhun in written answers to questions. “And the symbol is not Nazi. Trust me – some of my family died in concentration camps, so I have a well-developed nose for Nazi shit.”

As well as their frontline duties, the Azov battalion also functions as “a kind of police unit”, said a platoon commander who goes by the nom de guerre Kirt. A medieval history buff who takes part in Viking battle reenactments and once ran a tour firm in Thailand, Kirt returned to east Ukraine to join the Azov.

He took the Guardian on an overnight patrol through the outskirts of Mariupol and the villages around the front line.

Part separatist hunters, part city cops with no rules to restrain them, they travelled in a convoy of three vehicles, all heavily armed. As midnight approached we set off across the bumpy tarmac roads to the outskirts of Mariupol, and soon came across a parked car by the side of the road that the men found suspicious.

Fighters dashed from the front two cars and rushed at the vehicle pointing their guns at it. A startled man got out of the passenger seat, then a sheepish looking woman in a cocktail dress and holding a half-smoked cigarette emerged, smoothing her hair.

The Azov fighters apologised, but only after demanding documents and thoroughly searching the car.

As we edged closer to the front line, Kirt and the others scanned the skyline with binoculars, on the lookout for snipers and separatists.

Later, fighters sprinted towards a suspicious jeep parked on the beach while the sea was scanned for hostile support vessels, but it turned out that again the men had stumbled upon people just trying to have a good time: a group of women drinking sparkling wine out of plastic cups on the beachfront.

The Azov have been partially brought into the military and officially function as a special police unit. There are discussions that Azov and other battalions could be integrated into the army or special forces when the conflict is over.

Some of them, however, are hoping Ukraine will look very different in the not-so-distant future. And while they may be a tiny minority when it comes to Ukraine as a whole, they have a lot of weapons.

President Petro Poroshenko will be killed in a matter of months, Dmitry said, and a dictator will come to power.

“What are the police going to do? They could not do anything against the peaceful protesters on Maidan; they are hardly going to withstand armed fighting units.”

Pro-Russian rebels ‘free 1,200 Ukrainian prisoners’ amid EU sanctions delays

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said 1,200 Ukrainian prisoners taken by pro-Russian separatists have been freed. The signing of new sanctions against Russia by EU governments has meanwhile been delayed. 

Speaking during an impromptu “solidarity” visit to the southeastern port city of Mariupol on Monday, Poroshenko said that pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine had released 1,200 prisoners.

This comes after a 12-point “protocol” was agreed, as part of a ceasefire deal struck on Friday, that includes the freeing of all prisoners from both sides of the conflict.

No prisoner release has yet been confirmed by the rebels, and a government defense spokesman earlier said only 20 government soldiers had been handed over.

After five months of deadly conflict, Friday’s truce, agreed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, was the first deal to be backed by both Kyiv and Moscow.

‘No surrender’

Announcing his arrival in Mariupol viaTwitter, Poroshenko said, “Mariupol is Ukraine. We will not surrender this land to anyone”.

Insisting that he didn’t sign Friday’s ceasefire deal out of weakness, Poroshenko said, “Mariupol proved that we won’t let anybody burn our city to the ground.

The workers of Mariupol protected peace and calm in the city”. He also emphasized that in eastern Ukraine “our most important resource is people.”

“It is impossible to win the conflict just by military means,” Poroshenko said. “The more we increase the pressure, the more Russian troops are on our territory.”

Shaky truce

Despite Friday’s ceasefire agreement, renewed violence broke out in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, killing at least one woman in Mariupol.

Ambassador Thomas Greminger of Switzerland, who chairs the Organization for Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on Monday, however, that ” overall the ceasefire held even though it is still shaky.”

The OSCE is currently overseeing the Ukraine ceasefire as part of the truce agreement,

Delays on sanctions

In Brussels, European Union governments delayed the signing of on a new sanctions package against Russia on Monday, as some of the governments want to discuss how to suspend the sanctions if a Ukraine ceasefire holds.

The EU envoys were due to meet in at 4 p.m (UTC) to decide whether the sanctions, which were agreed in principle on Friday, should first be implemented and then suspended if the ceasefire holds or if they should not be implemented at all at this point.

If the new sanctions come into effect, Russian defense companies will have limited access to the European financial market. Russia will therby only have limited access to services from European energy companies and the EU will curb the export of dual-use technology to Moscow.

The sanctions also include the EU issuing travel bans and freezing assets of 20 high-ranking Russians and separatists from eastern Ukraine.

Russian airspace restrictions?

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow for its part would react if the sanctions are passed by restricting its airspace for Western airlines.

“Our understanding is that we have friendly relations with our partners, which is why the skies over Russia are open to flights,” he told Moscow’s Vedomosti newspaper.

“If we are sanctioned, we will have to respond,” Medvedev added. “If Western airlines (have to) circumvent our airspace, this could bankrupt many companies that are already teetering on the edge of survival.”

The war in Ukraine – Ukraine’s unhappy ceasefire

A TENUOUS ceasefire took hold in Ukraine on September 5th, bringing a lull to fighting that has raged for nearly five months, killing over 2,500 people. The agreement, devised by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and signed by Ukrainian and rebel representatives, held for little more than 24 hours since coming into force at 6pm local time. Mr Putin and Petro Poroshenko, his Ukrainian opposite number, continue to express hopes that it will be observed.

But by September 7th, at the time of writing, scepticism was growing. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that aid trucks bound for Luhansk on Saturday morning were forced to turn back due to shelling. Overnight, there was intense fighting near the big coastal city of Mariupol and Donetsk airport, a key objective of the rebels, was the subject of heavy artillery fire. According to Reuters, one armed rebel joked: “Listen to the sound of the ceasefire. There’s a proper battle going on there.”

The apparent breakthrough at the negotiating table came on the heels of a series of devastating military setbacks for Ukraine’s forces, which suffered heavy losses in recent weeks at the hands of what Ukraine’s government and its Western allies are convinced (with good reason) are elite Russian army troops. President Petro Poroshenko, apparently grasping the futility of continuing to fight a battle his forces cannot win, has become an advocate for a peace settlement even though he knows it will come at a very heavy price. Mr Putin, for his part, appears poised to achieve the subordination of Ukraine he sought from the outset thanks to his ruthless escalation of the conflict.

The peace plan contains elements of roadmaps set forth by both leaders. It reportedly calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities, prisoner exchanges and amnesty for certain combatants. The exact status of Ukraine’s Donbas region, however, remains an open question. Mr Poroshenko will aim for some form of decentralisation, with guarantees for language and cultural rights. But his government’s capitulation suggests that Russia is well on the way to getting its desired resolution–enough autonomy for the Donbas region within a “federalised” structure to give it an effective veto on Ukraine’s hopes of integrating with Western institutions such as the European Union and, above all, NATO. A satisfactory alternative for Mr Putin, if negotiations fail, might be a so-called “frozen conflict” in which a breakaway republic, internationally unrecognised, acts as a permanently destabilising presence within Ukraine.

Separatist leaders made their aims clear following the ceasefire announcement in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. The head of the self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic declared that it does not mean that their “aim to somehow break off is over”. Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, followed up on September 6th, telling reporters in Moscow that the talks meant the “legitimisation” of the people’s republics.

In Kiev, though many initially welcomed the ceasefire, doubts about Russian intentions and the durability of peace sounded out across the political spectrum even before the fighting resumed. Prime Minister Arsenyi Yatsenyuk, writing on Facebook on September 5th, suggested a three-step peace plan of his own, calling for the withdrawal of the “Russian army” and reiterating his proposal to construct a wall along Ukraine’s eastern border. Most volunteer groups and militia commanders, whose support is essential for any lasting armistice, have tacitly accepted—but not outright endorsed—the move, urging their supporters not to let up. Semen Semenchenko, commander of the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer militia, wrote: “Friends, this is a long game and we are its participants”.

The short-lived ceasefire coincided with the conclusion of the NATO summit in Wales, where Western leaders announced the creation of a rapid-response force to protect eastern European member states. Barack Obama said of the ceasefire that he was “hopeful, but based on past experience also sceptical”. At the summit, several NATO members promised precision weapons systems to Ukraine, Mr Poroshenko told the BBC, and the Obama administration pledged $60m of non-lethal military aid for Ukraine’s military. European leaders have also drawn up a new sanctions package against Russia, a move that the Russian foreign ministry called a “signal of clear support for the ‘party of war’ in Kiev”.

The signing of the ceasefire was intended to create the space for a political settlement to be hammered out. The prospects of that are dimming by the hour. “Neither Mr Putin nor Mr Poroshenko actually controls everything,” said Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expressing doubts about the ceasefire’s resilience as early reports of violations surfaced. More fundamentally, there is a huge gap between what the beleaguered Mr Poroshenko may be able to sell at home and the outcome that Mr Putin believes he is now within touching distance of getting. If peace does, against the odds, come, for most Ukrainians, it is likely to be an ugly one.

Ukraine truce under threat as blasts reported in flashpoint cities

a soldier stands in eastern ukraine

Explosions near two cities in eastern Ukraine have raised fears a truce between separatists and government forces may collapse. The presidents of Ukraine and Russia had earlier said the ceasefire was largely holding.

 

Strong explosions were heard Sunday morning in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, which had been a focus of fighting in recent days.

The prolonged blasts were reported to be coming from near the airport, which has been under the control of Urkainian government forces.

“Listen to the sound of the ceasefire,” one armed separatist joked to the Reuters news agency. “There’s a proper battle going on there.”

The strategically important port city of Mariupol, which has also been on the front-line of fighting during the past week, was the scene of several loud explosions into the early hours of Sunday.

“There has been an artillery attack. We received a number of impacts. We have no information about casualties,” a Ukrainian officer said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Journalists for the AFP news agency in Mariupol reported seeing thick smoke on the horizon and that a checkpoint held by forces loyal to Ukraine seemed to be on fire, while a Reuters reporter heard prolonged artillery fire to the city’s east late Saturday and later saw a burning truck, gas station and industrial facility, as well as vehicles carrying troops.

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had agreed in a phone conversation that the ceasefire, which came into force Friday evening, was largely being observed.

The pact signed in Minsk, the first to have the backing of both Kyiv and Moscow, aimed to enable an end to five months of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east. The violence has claimed about 2,500 lives according to UN figures. An earlier ceasefire declared by Kyiv in June collapsed within days.

Western leaders and Kyiv accused Russia of backing the separatists with troops and weapons, which Moscow has repeatedly denied.

Human rights group Amnesty International on Sunday accused “all sides” in the conflict of showing a disregard for civilian lives and that some attacks may amount to war crimes.

 

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