Secretary of State Blinken and Russia’s Lavrov face off at UN


NEW YORK — Russian and Western diplomats clashed over alleged war crimes in Ukraine on Thursday during a heated meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukrainian cities of Izyum and Bucha revealed gruesome torture and killing of Ukrainian civilians that could not be dismissed as the actions of a few bad actors.

“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Blinken said. “We cannot, we will not allow President Putin to get away with it.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the charges and accused Ukrainian forces of killing civilians in the eastern Donbas region “with impunity.”

He blamed the United States, France and Germany for not holding Ukraine accountable for alleged atrocities.

“The Kyiv regime owes its impunity to its Western sponsors,” he said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba seized on Lavrov’s remarks, saying his comments made him an accomplice to crimes occurring in Ukraine.

“Russian diplomats are directly complicit because their lies incite these crimes and cover them up,” he said.

The meeting marked only the second time that Blinken and Lavrov have been in the same room since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s decision to attend the meeting surprised some US officials who expected Russia to recoil at a topic designed to expose and condemn its plans to stage referendums and annex occupied territory in Ukraine.

In singling out Russia for blame, Blinken was joined by top diplomats from countries including France, Britain, Norway, Albania and Ireland, as well as UN Secretary General António Guterres, who accused the Kremlin of violating international law.

The meeting was attended by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, who said his team was deploying to Ukraine in the coming days to investigate allegations in the country’s east, where residents of territory previously occupied by Russia have accused Russian forces of torture, forced disappearances and rape.

Without explicitly blaming Russia, Khan made clear the atrocities he has investigated during visits to war-scorched areas of Ukraine including the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and the northeastern city of Kharkiv were real and shocking.

“The bodies I saw were not fake,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said that Russia has committed “unspeakable crimes” and that officials who committed, ordered or planned them must be held accountable.

Guterres called Moscow’s plan to stage referendums on joining Russia in occupied areas of Ukraine a “violation of the UN charter, and of international law and precedent.”

The world’s top diplomat also blamed Russian bombardments of urban areas for killing thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including hundreds of children.

“Almost every child in Ukraine has been scarred by the nightmare of war,” he said.

Lavrov entered the Security Council chamber just before his speaking slot. After condemning the West’s support for Ukraine, he left the room.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged restraint on both sides and emphasized the importance of the United Nations remaining impartial in the conflict.

India’s top diplomat, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, also avoided placing blame on either Russia or Ukraine, and simply endorsed investigations into war crimes.

Belarus, a close ally of Russia, alluded to Kremlin statements preceding the war, that the West’s stance on possible NATO membership for Ukraine and Kyiv’s efforts to align itself more closely with the West posed a threat to the region’s security balance.

“The tragic result of this arrogant position [is what] we’re seeing today in Ukraine. We have always repeated you cannot guarantee the security of one state by suppressing the security of another,” Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said. “No one took this seriously. Today we are reaping the harvest of this.”

The statements during the Security Council session occurred with world leaders in New York for the United Nations’ annual high-level meetings. One theme many leaders, including President Biden, raised during their remarks to the global body’s General Assembly was the desire to maintain unity among nations that have taken extraordinary steps since February to support Ukraine, providing arms, imposing sanctions and lessening their reliance on Russian energy.

Leaders from Eastern Europe, on the front lines of the showdown between Russia and NATO, echoed US hopes that the pro-Ukraine coalition will remain together despite the increasing strains it is expected to face in coming months, when high prices for energy and other goods probably will take a mounting toll on those countries’ populations.

Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova said her country, which borders Ukraine, would continue military aid to Kyiv, potentially including MiG fighter jets now that Poland and the Czech Republic have agreed to police Slovakian skies. But she acknowledged that some Slovaks just want an end to the conflict, no matter who prevails.

“It’s in our own interest to continue patiently explaining to our population that supporting Ukraine is not just some sort of charity,” she said in an interview, speaking through a translator. “It’s a national interest for Ukraine to defend itself and win this war.”

Support for Ukraine remains strong in Estonia, which borders Russia, said the country’s foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu.

“Cowardice and courage are fighting inside every nation,” Reinsalu said in an interview. “Will our determination be stronger?”

Estonia is among the nations calling for stronger economic measures targeting Russia’s economy, including a far-reaching commercial embargo and a severance of Russia’s banking sector from the rest of the world, to starve the Kremlin of revenue.

Unlike countries elsewhere in Europe, Reinsalu said, Ukrainians have no viable choice but to continue their fight against Russia. He said that Moscow, perhaps unintentionally, had made the stakes of the conflict very clear to Ukrainians.

“They know that their alternative, if they give up or make compromises, it means that all the country will become Buchas,” he said.


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A developing hurricane in the Caribbean could enter the Gulf of Mexico


After a quiet start to hurricane season, the Atlantic has awakened and is packed with storms and systems to watch — and at least one could pose a serious danger to the United States.

Great concern exists over a clumping of downpours north of Venezuela dubbed “Invest 98L,” which breezed through the Windward Islands with gusty winds and rain squalls. That one will remain tame until the weekend, when it is poised to move into a powder keg atmospheric environment.

Next week, it could enter the Gulf of Mexico, although its exact track is still uncertain. Assuming it grows into at least a tropical storm, it will be named Hermine. The National Hurricane Center gives it a 90 percent chance to do so.

For now, anyone residing along the Gulf Coast and Florida ought to pay close attention to this as the forecast evolves in the coming days.

Fiona will lash parts of Canada as region’s strongest storm on record

At present, it’s poorly organized. The reason it isn’t doing much yet is because of disruptive shear, or a change of wind speed and/or direction with height, that it’s combating. Too much shear can knock a fledgling storm off-kilter , as if subjected to a game of atmospheric tug-of-war. That shear is stemming from the high-altitude outflow, or exhaust, of Fiona far to the northeast.

Invest 98L will meander west over the coming days, remaining hindered by shear through Sunday. Things will escalate very quickly Sunday evening into Monday.

That’s when shear will relax at the same time 98L moves over some of the warmest waters in the Atlantic. The northwest Caribbean is replete with ocean heat content, or thermal energy contained in bathlike sea waters, which will support expedited consolidation and strengthening of the nascent storm.

Simultaneously, 98L — by then probably a named storm — will move beneath an upper-level high pressure system. That will work in favor of 98L in two ways:

  • Divergence. High pressure means air spreading apart. That divergence in the upper atmosphere will have a vacuum-like effect, creating a void and making it easier for surface air to rise. This enhancement of thunderstorm updrafts will hasten how quickly warm, moist “inflow” can rush into the storm.
  • Outflow. Highs spin clockwise. That’s the direction of tropical cyclone outflow in the northern hemisphere. That high pressure will work with 98L to evacuate “spent” air at high altitudes away from the storm, allowing it to ingest more juiced-up air from below. Imagine placing a suction fan at the top of a chimney. Air would be pulled up and out, which means more air would rush in from the bottom and the fire at the base would grow. This storm will do the same.

The potential exists for a very strong storm to be located somewhere in the northwestern Caribbean come Monday. It may be rapidly intensifying at that point.

However, it could track toward anywhere from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to central Cuba. But the storm could also slip in between those regions, entering the Gulf of Mexico sometime late Monday or Tuesday.

There are only two escape routes that might allow the storm to avoid the gulf. There is an outside chance that, if it remains weak, it could continue westward in the Caribbean toward Central America. If it strengthens quickly, it could turn north over central Cuba and curl out toward the Atlantic. But just a minority of model simulations present these outlier scenarios.

Most model simulations project that the system will end up in the gulf — while subtleties in atmospheric steering currents will determine where the storm eventually comes ashore.

A small piece of good news is that, if the storm does make a landfall in the northern or western Gulf of Mexico, dry air from the north may weaken it slightly. That’s not much comfort, however, when virtually the entire gulf region is running warmer than average at the most active time of year for hurricanes.

If the storm tracks further east, it could evade such dry air. That would be a concern if any potential track takes it closer to Florida.


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Senate Republicans block bill to require disclosure of ‘dark money’ donors


Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked legislation that would have required super PACs and other groups to disclose donors who give $10,000 or more during an election cycle, a blow to Democrats’ efforts to reform campaign financing laws.

In a procedural vote Thursday morning, the Senate failed to advance the Disclose Act on a 49-49 vote along party lines. No Republicans voted for it. At least 60 votes would have been required for the Senate to end debate on the bill and advance it.

Spending in election cycles by corporations and the ultrawealthy through so-called dark money groups has skyrocketed since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed incorporated entities and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or attack candidates. Democrats have railed unsuccessfully against the ruling for more than a decade, saying the ability for corporations and billionaires to advocate for or against candidates anonymously through such groups has given them outsize influence in American politics. Republicans have defended the right of corporations to make political donations , even as some of them have called for greater transparency in campaign financing.

Before the vote Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) noted that, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens Unitedthe dissenting justices had warned that the ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”

“Sadly, they turned out to be right,” Schumer said. “By giving massive corporations the same rights as individual citizens, multibillionaires being able to have their voice … drowning out the views of citizens, and by casting aside decades of campaign finance law and by paving the way for powerful elites to pump nearly endless cash, Citizens United has disfigured our democracy almost beyond recognition.”

“Now the choice before the Senate is simple. Will members vote today to cure our democracy of the cancer of dark money, or will they stand in the way and let this disease metastasize beyond control?” Schumer added. “Members must pick a side . Which side are you on? The side of American voters and ‘one person, one vote’ or the side of super PACs and the billionaire donor class rigging the game in their favor?”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (DR.I.), the bill’s sponsor, compared such dark money groups to “a dark octopus of corruption and deceit” that had infiltrated democracy. And though federal law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with political campaigns when it comes to spending and content, Whitehouse added, “you can bet” that candidates — and lawmakers — get wind of that information anyway.

“This is the kind of phony fun and games the dark money allows to intrude into our democracy,” Whitehouse said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) criticized the bill as “an insult to the First Amendment” and encouraged Republicans to vote against it Thursday.

“Today’s liberal pet priority is a piece of legislation designed to give unelected federal bureaucrats vastly more power over private citizens’ First Amendment rights and political activism, and to strip privacy away from Americans who speak out about politics in their private lives,” McConnell said before the vote.

Earlier this week, President Biden called on Republicans to join Democrats in supporting the Disclose Act. In remarks at the White House, Biden invoked the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying his “friend” supported campaign finance reforms as matter of fundamental fairness. He pointed out that currently advocacy groups can run ads until Election Day without revealing who paid for the ad, and that even foreign entities that are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns can use dark money loopholes to try to influence elections.

“And at its best, our democracy serves all people equally, no matter wealth or privilege,” Biden said then. “But here’s the deal: There’s much — too much — money that flows in the shadows to influence our elections … Dark money has become so common in our politics, I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Biden said that dark money groups were a problem for both Republicans and Democrats, but said that so far Republicans in Congress had not supported passing new campaign finance laws to address the issue.

“Ultimately, this comes down to public trust. Dark money erodes public trust,” Biden said. “We need to protect public trust. And I’m determined to do that.”

John Wagner and Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.


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Pandemic unemployment fraud estimate reaches $46.5 billion


A federal watchdog found on Thursday that fraudsters may have stolen $45.6 billion from the nation’s unemployment insurance program during the pandemic, using the Social Security numbers of dead people and other tactics to deceive and bill the US government.

The new estimate is a dramatic increase from the roughly $16 billion in potential fraud identified a year ago, and it illustrates the immense task still ahead of Washington as it seeks to pinpoint the losses, recover the funds and hold criminals accountable for stealing from a vast array of federal relief programs.

The report, issued by the inspector general for the Labor Department, paints a grim portrait of the country’s jobless aid program beginning under the Trump administration in 2020. The weekly benefits helped more than 57 million families just in the first five months of the crisis — yet the program quickly emerged as a tempting target for criminals.

To siphon away funds, scammers allegedly filed billions of dollars in unemployment claims in multiple states simultaneously and relied on suspicious, hard-to-trace emails. In some cases, they used more than 205,000 Social Security numbers that belonged to dead people. Other suspected criminals obtained benefits using the identities of prisoners who are ineligible for aid.

The inspector general’s office said it had opened roughly 190,000 investigative matters related to unemployment insurance fraud since the start of the pandemic. But officials at the watchdog office warned they were not able to access more updated federal prisoner data and only focused their report on “high risk” areas — two factors raising the prospect that they could uncover billions in additional theft in the months to come.

The government also announced it had reached the “milestone” of charging 1,000 individuals with crimes involving jobless benefits during the pandemic. Kevin Chambers, the director for coronavirus-related enforcement for the Justice Department, described the situation in a statement as “unprecedented fraud. “

But federal watchdogs offered fresh criticism of the Labor Department, raising concern that investigators’ ability to access states’ unemployment data — to further study the pandemic — could be in jeopardy after 2023. The trouble, which dates back to an internal government dispute that The Washington Post reported on this year, previously prompted the inspector general to raise alarms about its ability to find and pursue the theft.

Asked about the findings, a spokesman for the Labor Department pointed to a response letter included with the inspector general’s report. The agency said it is “committed” to helping states “combat the continually changing and new types of sophisticated fraud impacting the UI system. “

Otherwise, the department said it had provided grants and other guidance meant to help states improve their systems for awarding and monitoring claims. And it described the contention that it had inhibited investigations as “not fair,” citing the fact that it still must revise existing regulations.

Separately, a White House official said Thursday that the administration is working to address the issue with accessing data. The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

The Covid Money Trail

It was the largest burst of emergency spending in US history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the US economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.

Read more

The new report on unemployment fraud underscores the persistent challenge facing the federal government, two years after it approved the first of roughly $5 trillion in response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. That money helped rescue the economy from collapse early in the pandemic , yet it quickly became a ripe target for waste, fraud and abuse, as The Post has documented in its year-long series tracking the spending, called the Covid Money Trail.

The scope of that theft has been vast: Earlier this week, federal prosecutors charged 47 defendants in an entirely different scheme targeting a program to provide free meals for needy children. The organization, Feeding Our Future, allegedly stole more than $250 million from the meal program in what the Justice Department described as the largest, single fraud case targeting coronavirus aid to date.

Federal investigators similarly have raised alarms and pursued charges involving roughly $1 trillion in loans and grants meant to help small businesses. But the trouble has surpassed mere theft: In some cases, the government’s generous aid proved ineffective or helped finance pet projects that had nothing to do with addressing the coronavirus, The Post has found. Republican governors, for example, tapped a $350 billion program meant to bolster their response to the crisis for a wide array of controversial political causes, including tax cuts and immigration crackdowns.

Beginning in 2020, Congress labored to expand unemployment benefits to meet the magnitude of the crisis. Lawmakers allowed a wider range of out-of-work Americans, including contractors for gig-economy companies such as Uber, to collect jobless aid for the first time . And Washington repeatedly augmented the size of those checks, at one point providing an extra $600 in weekly payments.

But the crush of applications — amid historic computers — quickly overwhelmed the state workforce agencies that administer the program. Many of those agencies had been neglected for years, with underfunded staff relying on decades-old to process requests for financial support. The chaos immediately opened the door for fraudsters, many of whom stole innocent Americans’ identities to obtain weekly checks in their name.

‘A magnet for rip-off artists’: Fraud siphoned billions from pandemic unemployment benefits

“Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program — resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,” said Larry Turner, the inspector general for the Labor Department, in a statement.

Studying the program between March and October 2020, the inspector general last year found more than $16 billion in potential fraud in key high-risk areas. But the watchdog in recent months had warned that total was likely to rise, perhaps considerably. Testingifying to Congress this March, Turner said there could have been $163 billion in overpayments, a term that includes fraud as well as money wrongly sent to innocent Americans.

The amount was a projection, relying on a sample of federal spending to compute possible fraud across the nearly $900 billion in unemployment payments made during the pandemic. But the figure raises the possibility that the inspector general’s latest update, $45.6 billion, could continue to rise as it further scrutinizes claims data.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees unemployment benefits, praised the “strong effort to identify criminals.” But the senator stressed on Thursday the need for a legislative overhaul of the jobless benefits system.

“I’ve long said we need a national set of technology and security standards for state systems to better prevent this kind of fraud, and we’re going to keep working to get our reforms passed,” he said.


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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol overheard insulting U.S. Congress as ‘idiots’


South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was caught on a hot mic Wednesday insulting US Congress members as “idiots” who could be a potential embarrassment for President Biden if they did not approve funding for global public health.

Yoon had just met with Biden at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York City. There, Biden had pledged $6 billion from the United States to the public health campaign, which fights AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide. The funding would require congressional approval .

“It would be so humiliating for Biden if these idiots don’t pass it in Congress,” Yoon was overheard telling a group of aides as they left the event. Video of the exchange quickly went viral in South Korea, where Yoon took office in May.

Representatives for Yoon and for the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. Park Hong-keun, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party in South Korea, criticized Yoon’s “foul language tarnishing the US Congress” as “a major diplomatic mishap ,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Yoon and Biden were both in New York for the UN General Assembly, where they held discussions on the sidelines Wednesday.

“The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen the US-ROK alliance and ensure close cooperation to address the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the White House said in a readout of their meeting. “The Presidents also discussed our ongoing cooperation on a broad range of priority issues including supply chain resilience, critical, economic and energy security, global health, and climate change.”

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol gave a halting response when asked about gender issues by a Washington Post reporter. (Video: The Washington Post)


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Hurricane Fiona: Many across Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic remain without power and running water as the storm churns toward Bermuda


The first major hurricane of this year’s Atlantic season has killed at least five people across the Caribbean: one in Guadeloupe, two in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic.

“This was something incredible that we’ve never seen before,” Ramona Santana in Higüey, Dominican Republic, told CNN en Español. “We’re in the streets with nothing, no food, no shoes, clothes, just what’s on your back . . . We don’t have anything. We have God, and the hope help will come.”

Now packing sustained winds of 130 mph, the center of Fiona is due to pass just west of Bermuda early Friday, with conditions starting to deteriorate Thursday, said CNN Meteorologist Robert Shackelford. The island nation is under a hurricane warning; Americans are warned not to travel there, and relatives of US government personnel may leave, the State Department said.

“The National Hurricane Center is certain that Bermuda will experience tropical-storm-force winds,” Shackelford said. “Once Fiona passes by Bermuda, the storm is forecast to impact Nova Scotia by Saturday afternoon.”

How to help victims of Hurricane Fiona

In the Canadian province, residents should prepare for tropical storm-like or even hurricane-like conditions starting as early as Friday evening by securing outdoor items, trimming trees, charging cell phones and creating an emergency kit, said Jason Mew, director of the emergency management office. Shelters will be open for those experiencing homelessness and anyone else in need, he said.

The Canadian Hurricane Centre has issued a hurricane watch for Nova Scotia from Hubbards to Brule, Prince Edward Island, Isle-de-la-Madeleine, and the coast of Newfoundland from Parson’s Pond to Port aux Basques.

A tropical storm watch has also been issued for several coastlines in Atlantic Canada, including from west of Brule to Cap Madeleine, Quebec, and Anticosti Island.

“Fiona (is) expected to impact Atlantic Canada and eastern Quebec with heavy rainfall and powerful hurricane-force winds beginning early Saturday,” said Environment Canada, Canada’s national weather service.

Meantime, a developing storm poised to be named Hermine could become a monstrous threat to the US Gulf Coast by next week, now forecast models show.
In Puerto Rico, where Fiona delivered flooding rains and an islandwide blackout as it made landfall Sunday, more than 450,000 people lacked or had intermittent water service, and 1 million homes and businesses were still without power Wednesday, according to the government’s emergency portal system.
A man collects spring water Wednesday at a mountain next to a highway in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico

In the Dominican Republic, where Fiona moved onto land early Monday, more than a million customers had no running water and nearly 350,000 homes and businesses were dark Wednesday, said Maj. Gen. Juan Méndez García, director of the country’s emergency operations center.

More than 600 homes were destroyed, and some communities were cut off from aid, he said.

Electricity problems dog Puerto Rico

As Fiona hit the Dominican Republic in the middle of the night, Iverice Viera rushed in waist-deep floodwater to wake up her neighbors in Higüey, she said.

She’s now trying to dry out her belongings.

“The rooms are empty. I had to throw away a lot. There’s no electricity or water to wash anything,” Viera told CNN en Español.

Ruinous Hurricane Fiona reaches Category 4 as it moves north, leaving disaster-stricken areas on slow road to recovery

Puerto Rico, meanwhile, was making some progress on the relief front: President Joe Biden on Wednesday approved a major disaster declaration for the US territory, FEMA said. The move allows residents to access grants for temporary housing and home repairs as well as low- interest loans to cover uninsured property losses.

“This ensures that our people will have access to additional help from FEMA to recover from the damage caused by this event,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said in a tweet.

But crews have faced setbacks in restoring power. Equipment problems have temporarily knocked back offline lines believed to have been repaired, Josué Colón, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said Wednesday.

Fiona hit almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria plunged the island into an extended blackout.

Across the island, more than 800 people were housed Wednesday in dozens of shelters, according to Puerto Rico’s housing secretary, William Rodriguez.

New York City’s mayor has deployed staff from city agencies to Puerto Rico to help officials surveying damage.

“The team will include representatives from New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM), New York City Department of Buildings, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and the New York City Department of Design and Construction,” according to a news release from the mayor’s office.

Cars drive Wednesday under a downed power pole in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico.

Fiona also menaced parts of the Turks and Caicos on Tuesday, and many areas of the British territory were still without power Wednesday, namely on Grand Turk, South Caicos, Salt Cay, North Caicos and Middle Caicos, said Anya Williams, acting governor of the islands.

Officials there were relieved no one was killed in the storm, they said as they began visiting islands and making repairs.

CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Jessica Hasbun, Jorge Venegas, Amy Simonson, Chris Boyette and Jamiel Lynch contributed to his report.


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