1:02 p.m. EST
MR. TONER: Hello, everybody. Greetings. Sorry I was a little late.
QUESTION: A little? (Laughter.) A little late is like five minutes. This is not a little.
MR. TONER: I apologized. All right.
QUESTION: You still (inaudible) for the record.
MR. TONER: What’s that?
QUESTION: Thank you. You still did arrive on your own record.
MR. TONER: Thank you. Thanks, Said. Matt, anything?
QUESTION: Huh? Oh, you don’t have anything to say?
MR. TONER: Nothing to say.
QUESTION: The Secretary’s not doing anything interesting today?
MR. TONER: You all know what the Secretary’s doing. She’s on her way to New York.
QUESTION: Right. Well --
MR. TONER: Now that you’ve asked --
MR. TONER: Sure, but you can try.
QUESTION: No, I don’t want to try. I want to start – and I think we can make this short, so I hope not too many other people do. The Israeli Government has announced plans to actually encourage settlers to move into the West Bank and to begin – and also to begin a process that would – that could end up in legalizing what are now illegal outposts. I’m assuming that your position on both of these things hasn’t changed, so I’m wondering --
MR. TONER: You assume correctly.
MR. TONER: You know we’ve said multiple times --
QUESTION: What is it – can you maybe make it a little bit more clear, because it seems to be apparent that the Israelis, or at least Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, don’t understand exactly what it is that you, as their prime benefactor and large – huge ally, want from them.
MR. TONER: Well, Matt, we’ve said this many times from this podium and from elsewhere that we view any move that would jeopardize getting these two parties back to the negotiating table, and indeed, we’ve obviously seen them back – face-to-face negotiations over the past couple of weeks – that we find those unconstructive and unhelpful.
QUESTION: And that would include what they have announced today?
MR. TONER: Yes, that would include that.
QUESTION: All right. So what is the consequence, then, for Israel for them continuing to defy – not only defy but really to do – not just to say no, we don’t agree with that, but then to actually actively --
MR. TONER: Well, again --
QUESTION: -- oppose or actively take active steps that fly in the face of what you say is helpful?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re seeking clarity on what is actually being proposed here. We did have an initial round of direct talks in Jordan. Those talks have ended, but they did show signs of progress and we certainly want to see them continue. And these kinds of actions don’t help create the kind of atmosphere that are conducive to these talks continuing.
Now, David Hale is in the region. He’s going to have meetings in Amman as well as Jerusalem and Ramallah, and he’ll be back in Washington later this week. But – obviously, he’s there in his capacity, but also I think he’ll make some of these concerns – convey them to the Israeli Government.
QUESTION: Well, these concerns have been conveyed over and over and over to the Israelis. What is the consequence for them continuing to do this?
MR. TONER: Well, again, this is about getting them back to the negotiating table. And what we make clear is that whenever these kinds of actions take place, that they hamper that process.
QUESTION: So there is no consequence at all?
MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s not about carrots and sticks. What it’s about is trying to encourage these parties to get back to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: Why not? It’s about carrots and sticks everywhere else in the world. Why isn’t it about carrots and sticks here?
MR. TONER: In this case, it’s in both their --
QUESTION: What are you doing --
MR. TONER: -- it’s in both parties’ best interests to continue negotiations towards a comprehensive settlement.
QUESTION: But the actions of at least – one could argue the actions of both parties, but in this series of questions, which is about the announcements by the Israeli Government --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- they are not acting in the best interests of that, according to you.
MR. TONER: Again --
QUESTION: Correct? So what is the consequence of that? The consequence is they don’t get back to talks that they apparently don’t seem to want?
MR. TONER: Well, again, you’ll have to ask the Israeli Government what their intent is here. But you’re absolutely right that this has to be something that both sides want to pursue and to do so in a meaningful and committed fashion. And again, we are very outspoken when we see actions by either side that we believe hampers the chance for these parties to get back into direct negotiations. It’s certainly – as we’ve said many times, it’s in both of their interests to be in direct negotiations.
QUESTION: All right. Two more very quick ones --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- and then I’m done. You talk about meaningful and committed fashion. Are the actions of the Israeli Government something that you would consider meaningful and committed to be – is what they’re doing, is that something that you consider to be acting in a meaningful and – now I’ve forgotten the other word --
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: -- and committed fashion?
MR. TONER: Thanks, Andy. Again, I think I’ve been very clear that actions by either side that we view as unconstructive to the process --
QUESTION: So they are not acting in a meaningful and committed fashion?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we have had talks in Jordan over the past few weeks that we believe offered a good start. We want to see those talks continue. David Hale is in the region. He’s consulting with all sides as well as the Jordanians.
QUESTION: Mark, that’s a great answer to a question, but it’s not the question I asked. Is Israel asking in a meaningful – acting in a meaningful and committed fashion toward getting a peace – towards encouraging these talks?
MR. TONER: Again, we’ve said that these kinds of actions are not constructive.
QUESTION: I think it’s a yes-or-no question.
MR. TONER: And I’m going to answer you the way I’m answering you, which is that it’s not constructive.
QUESTION: It’s not constructive, all right. And then the last one is just Hale – he is where at the moment right now?
MR. TONER: That is a good question. I believe he’s in Amman today.
QUESTION: Okay. And was he aware – was he aware of this before he went or --
MR. TONER: I don’t know. I haven’t – I didn’t talk to him.
QUESTION: Did this come out as a complete surprise to you guys?
MR. TONER: I do not know whether he was aware of it or not.
QUESTION: What about the rest of the building?
MR. TONER: Again, I believe that we were – again, I’m not going to get into what we may or may not have known. What we’re seeing here is actions that we believe aren’t constructive.
QUESTION: Mark, just a --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Said.
QUESTION: -- quick follow-up on this. Now, you keep saying that the path to statehood is through direct negotiations. Seeing how the settlement processing increased by 20 percent in 2011 and with today’s announcement, and in fact, since the beginning of this month we are likely to see an increase if they continue at this pace – like a 40 percent increase in settlement activities. So what incentive is there for the Palestinians to go into these negotiations to sort of get a state that is viable – as you keep saying – that is viable and contiguous and independent and sovereign?
MR. TONER: Well, the motivation should be clear, and that is the sooner they sit down with Israel and work through these issues in a comprehensive fashion so that we can get a clear way forward in terms of borders, then the sooner they have that comprehensive settlement and that statehood that they so desire.
QUESTION: But isn’t there a pattern that every time there is some sort of a negotiation and, in fact, a visit by a high-level U.S. official and so on to Israel, that the Israelis always counter by announcing a new settlement and increase the settlements and so on?
MR. TONER: Again, you’re asking me to speak to the motivations behind this decision. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay. So you talk about incentives for the Palestinians, but do you have any kind of disincentive for the increased Israeli settlement activities?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve always been clear that – and Israelis themselves have commented that the status quo is unsustainable. So that’s --
QUESTION: So then the expression of anger and perhaps a little pouting, there is nothing that you can do?
MR. TONER: I disagree. David Hale is right now in the region. He is consulting with our partners as well as the parties. And we’re committed to getting them back into direct negotiations.
QUESTION: Can you tell us the last time that your position that was made very clearly to the Israelis did have an impact on stemming the settlement activities?
MR. TONER: Again, we are very outspoken when we see these kinds of actions by either side. We convey those to the Israelis, but you’re asking me to --
QUESTION: But you expressed a little recollection on that --
MR. TONER: -- elaborate on some kind of actions that I can’t.
QUESTION: In the last 12 months, you have not been able to sort of dissuade the Israelis from settlement activities. Are you aware of any time that you were able to persuade them?
MR. TONER: Again, Said, it is a question better directed to the Israeli Government. What we’re trying to do without preconditions, we’re trying to get the parties back to the negotiating table, and we’ve had a good start.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Another subject? Syria?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I do have one question. Russia is saying that the Syrian Government has agreed to some type of talks. What is your understanding of exactly what they mean by that?
MR. TONER: You’re talking about these proposed talks in Moscow.
QUESTION: In Moscow.
MR. TONER: I don’t have much more detail than what, frankly, we’ve seen in the press, what Russian officials have said. What I would just say is that we’ve seen time and time again Syria play this kind of shell game with various proposals, various peace efforts, various attempts at dialogue, and frankly, there is an Arab League plan that they did agree to involving the monitors, involving pulling back their artillery and military forces from residential areas, and freeing the political prisoners, and they’ve failed to live up to those basic minimum steps that they did agree to. So we think it’s important, frankly, to hold the regime’s feet to the fire, if you will, and we’re going to also talk in New York today – the Secretary will be there, as Matt mentioned – and send a clear message, we hope, that we, the United States, stand with the Syrian people, and we’re committed to the Arab League proposal on leadership in this regard.
QUESTION: So the Russians are just being duped by Assad?
MR. TONER: Look, again, it’s not about being duped or not. What’s important now, I think, is to bring international pressure and focus to bear on Syria so that they understand very clearly the choices before them the regime has. We all know Turkey’s made an effort, others have made efforts in the past, and they pretend to engage, attempt to – or pretend to engage, and then nothing ever happens or comes of it. And most recently we saw this with the monitoring mission, frankly. And so this is par for the course, and I think it speaks to the fact of why they’re meeting at the UN today in an effort to coalesce international pressure on Assad.
QUESTION: And has the Secretary been able to get in touch with Minister Lavrov?
MR. TONER: She has not been able to reach him. However, I can say that Deputy Secretary Burns spoke to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov on a range of global and bilateral issues, and they’d also discussed Syria.[i]
QUESTION: Well, why do you think she hasn’t been able to? I mean –
MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask –
QUESTION: -- modern communication being what it is –
MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask – I think he gave some comments to the press today about being fully engaged in his visit to Australia, but I’d refer you to his party.
QUESTION: Do you have a readout of Burns’s call?
QUESTION: Do you have a readout of Burns’s call, like what did they discuss on certain –
MR. TONER: I don’t beyond that – a range of global and bilateral issues. I did confirm that they did talk about the situation in Syria.
Andy, you had a question, and then I’ll get –
QUESTION: Well, with the Lavrov call, but from your description, it makes it sounds as though the Secretary has a standing call into him that’s not just getting returned. Is that right?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, Toria spoke to this yesterday. We – the Secretary has tried to reach out for him, and he hasn’t called, but as I said, Deputy Secretary Burns was able to speak to his counterpart.
QUESTION: So it’s 48 hours, she hasn’t received a reply. She said 24 hours, yes.
MR. TONER: By your count, yes.
QUESTION: Is she sitting by the phone waiting?
MR. TONER: Absolutely not. She’s going to New York where she’s going to engage the Security Council on the pressing situation in Syria.
QUESTION: Right. Foreign Minister Lavrov seemed to think that this was not a call that was really necessary, that two foreign ministers didn’t really need to talk about moving commas around on a UN resolution or – is that the – was this – is this conversation supposed to be more substantial than comma movement?
MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s nothing more substantial and more pressing in international affairs right now than the situation in Syria.
QUESTION: So it’s more than just talking about the language?
MR. TONER: It’s talking about the way forward.
QUESTION: So what does the Secretary expect it to say that is different?
MR. TONER: I don’t know about the grammatical dimension.
QUESTION: Okay. What does she expect it to say or bring to the fore that is different than what she said yesterday or the day before? In other words, what kind of actions does she – will she propose?
MR. TONER: Stay tuned. The 3 o’clock session is an open session, so you’ll be able to watch it on TV and hear for yourselves.
QUESTION: So – but we should expect something totally new?
MR. TONER: Well, I – look, I mean, I think – I don’t know what you mean by totally new. I mean, she’s been quite clear about why she’s going to New York, and that is to send a clear message of solidarity to the Syrian people and to urge the Security Council to take action, that it’s been far too long that they’ve been sitting on the sidelines.
QUESTION: What kind of actions? I mean, like what?
MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s a draft resolution, and that’s something that they’re going to discuss, but again, you’re trying to ask me to preview this, and that’s –
QUESTION: The draft resolution calls for Mr. Assad to sort of turn powers or authority to his vice president much like the Yemeni --
MR. TONER: The draft resolution is supportive of what the Arab League has laid out, and we think it’s a way forward.
MR. TONER: And we’ve been quite clear about what we think should happen to President Assad.
QUESTION: Yeah. But both Mr. Assad and his supporters, the Russians and the Chinese, who wield a veto power in the Security Council, have already said no to that.
MR. TONER: All good questions, but let’s let this play out.Yeah. Go ahead. Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that. Since they said that the Russians that they will veto the draft resolution, will you table it and force them to do that?
MR. TONER: Again, you’re asking me to get two or three steps ahead here. Today is about talking about the situation right now, hearing from the Arab League about their assessment and their recommendations for the way forward, and she is there to send a strong signal that the U.S. is for strong Security Council action. This is going to play out in the coming days.
MR. TONER: No. I don’t have a readout. I’ll try to get one for you, though, Michel.
QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary has any bilats scheduled around this meeting up there?
MR. TONER: She does. I’m hesitant to confirm them. I’ll try to do it right after we get done here, because they were still a bit in flux. The schedule, obviously, was a bit last minute. So –
MR. TONER: Yeah.
MR. TONER: Are we done with Syria or –
QUESTION: We’re not.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: The secretary was – the secretary general – thank you – met with secretary of Arab League and Qatari prime minister in New York?
MR. TONER: He’s talking about Feltman.
MR. TONER: Yeah. I don’t know. I’ll get you a readout. We’ll take the question.
QUESTION: Okay. Because he was supposed to be doing some preliminary meetings.
MR. TONER: No. I know. I’ll – I just don’t know – I haven’t touched base with him today, so we’ll get you a full reckoning of his whereabouts.
QUESTION: Well, there has been. I mean, there’s been ongoing communication at a variety of levels. Toria spoke yesterday about the President having called General Tantawi a week or so ago. The Secretary followed up with her counterpart, and Secretary of Defense Panetta, I believe, spoke with General Tantawi over the weekend. Again, at every one of these calls, they expressed our desire to see the travel restrictions lifted on these Americans, but also, more broadly, to see our concerns about the NGOs operating there addressed.
QUESTION: Okay. The Egyptian justice minister said today there that he – that Ambassador Patterson had sent him a letter asking for these folks to be allowed to leave, but that he essentially didn’t take receipt of the letter and sent it back, saying that it should have gone to the judges. Is that – can you confirm that she sent that letter?
MR. TONER: I believe there was a letter sent, yeah, and that – again, I just would stress that that’s just one avenue. We’re pursuing our engagement with the Egyptians through a variety of avenues.
QUESTION: And do you know if she plans to resubmit that letter to the judges?
MR. TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: Because the speaker of the parliament is saying that this is interference in Egyptian judicial processes.
MR. TONER: The justice minister’s prerogative to send this letter back, but we’re going to continue to engage on this.
QUESTION: Yeah. Mark, could we just clarify exactly what that letter said? Because – is it asking for them actually to be released?
MR. TONER: I didn’t get a – right, I didn’t see the actual letter. I believe it expressed our concerns about these individuals and the fact that we want to see the restrictions on their travel lifted, but I’ll have to confirm that, frankly.
QUESTION: Is it possible to get some clarification on exactly --
MR. TONER: I will.
QUESTION: -- what she’s asking? Because --
MR. TONER: I will try to --
QUESTION: -- if she’s saying “Free them,” and they are still being questioned, then it might be interference.
MR. TONER: Again, there’s – we have been, over the last week or so, trying to seek clarity from the Egyptians about the travel restrictions on these individuals, and, as I said, more broadly, about the NGOs operating in Cairo – in Egypt, frankly, both international ones as well as Egyptian ones. And we’re going to continue to try to engage with the Egyptians on it.
QUESTION: Sorry, I just want to make sure of one thing.
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: You said you believe there was a letter and you believe that the letter said – that expressed the concerns that said --
MR. TONER: There was a letter.
QUESTION: There was a letter?
MR. TONER: There was a letter.
QUESTION: It’s more than just you believe. There was a letter?
MR. TONER: There was a letter.
QUESTION: And it did express, of the Ambassador’s concerns --
MR. TONER: Did I use the subjunctive? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: You said you believe, and I just want to – I mean --
MR. TONER: Yes, there is – there was a letter, and as I said --
QUESTION: And the --
MR. TONER: -- it’s one of a variety of means that we’re using to communicate.
QUESTION: And broadly, what the letter said?
MR. TONER: Now, here I am. I’m back to I believe, because I have not seen the letter word for word. But I believe it conveyed our concerns about the travel restrictions on these individuals.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea about the charges leveled against these U.S. nationals?
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: So you don’t know --
QUESTION: How (inaudible) – and do you know what the SCAF’s beef is with these people, I mean, and what kind of conditions have need to be met for their release?
MR. TONER: Well, I’d refer you to the Egyptian authorities. We’ve been very clear in saying that these NGOs are playing an important role, that they’re not partisan in any way, they’re not trying to give money to any individual – I mean, this is a dialogue that we have been having for some time now, dating back, frankly, before the Secretary’s speech at the National Democratic Institute about the importance of these nongovernmental organizations, the role that they play in not just Egyptian society, but around the world. They played a pivotal role in helping improve the democratic process in many countries.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
QUESTION: Do you believe that the Egyptians may be exaggerating how they’ve breached their rules and laws to make a political point?
MR. TONER: I truly don’t want to speculate about what the motivation is behind this.
QUESTION: So why are they pushing this into a confrontation with you?
MR. TONER: I don’t know. I do not know.
QUESTION: Is it – would you agree with that characterization that they’re pushing it into a confrontation with you?
MR. TONER: I simply don’t know what the motivation is.
QUESTION: Do you have any clarity on the meetings that this Egyptian military delegation may have? I believe they’re supposed to arrive in Washington tomorrow and have asked for meetings in this building or the Pentagon and then --
MR. TONER: Right, okay. They’re actually – but they’re in the United States already – in Tampa, I believe.
QUESTION: And Florida or somewhere, yeah. Do you have any – who they’re going to see here?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll take the question and try to get a readout. I think it’s still being finalized.
QUESTION: Just one thing: Yesterday, Toria used the word “persecute” when she said – when she was speaking about these people who are not being allowed to leave. Is that the position of the U.S., that these people are being persecuted by the Egyptian justice system?
MR. TONER: I think that we believe that it’s important that they be allowed to travel freely, and that – what’s – the conditions that have been placed on them are unfair.
QUESTION: Are unfair, and so that would amount to persecution and --
MR. TONER: I stand by what Toria said.
QUESTION: And she used the word “persecute.” I just want to make sure, because the question never really got answered yesterday about whether she meant to use the word “persecute” or if she --
MR. TONER: I don’t have the transcript in front of me, but I stand by what she said.
QUESTION: Well, okay. So you do believe, then, that these are onerous restrictions that amount to persecution?
MR. TONER: I believe these are onerous restrictions that – and if she described it as persecution, I stand by that. Certainly, what we believe is that we need clarity on the situation of these individuals.
QUESTION: So do you think that the Egyptians may be using this as a pretext to introduce all kinds of new laws and restrictions on the operation of people like the NDI, the National Democratic Institute, and International Republican Institute?
MR. TONER: Again, Said, there – Egypt right now is – as we’ve talked about before – is navigating a difficult transition. We’ve seen some steps forward – in most recent weeks, the lifting of the emergency law. Although, as we’ve said, we do have concerns about the term “thuggery,” but that was an important step, as well as the seating of parliament and the beginning of the drafting of a constitution.
So the political process is moving forward, but this question of NGOs, nongovernmental organizations and their role within Egyptian civil society, is one that needs to be addressed by the Egyptian authorities. We’re pressing them to address that as quickly as possible, as well as we believe that, again, the travel restrictions that are placed on these individuals are unfair.
QUESTION: Back to the point on the emergency law, did you get any clarification from the Egyptians on what thuggery is?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll check.
QUESTION: Mark, have there been any new discussions with members of Congress about the NGO situation? Have there been requests to you guys?
MR. TONER: I’m aware that – I know we’ve been engaged throughout this episode with Congress. I don’t know with whom we’ve been speaking in particular.
QUESTION: A general question on --
MR. TONER: I’ll try to get more for you on that tomorrow.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could answer directly, or perhaps later on, to see what kind of activities do we have in places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in Jordan by American NGOs that promote and educate people on democracy.
MR. TONER: Right, and I would refer you, frankly, to some of these non-governmental organizations – IRI or NDI – who can give you a much more thorough laydown. But the point of fact is that they’re very active throughout the world – not just in the region, but in many countries. And I know from my own experience the pivotal role that they’ve played in many of the democracies that were fledgling democracies in the ‘90s of Eastern and Central Europe.
MR. TONER: I’d have to check.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: Macedonia.
QUESTION: Can you tell us anything about religious tension in the town of Struga, where a church was burned after Christian men dressed in burkas and mocked the Qu’ran?
MR. TONER: I do not. I’ll have to look into it. I mean, certainly, we would urge restraint and urge tolerance in any situation like this, but I’ll look into it and see if we have more to say about it.
Yeah, in the back.
QUESTION: Another subject too, on Switzerland: Swiss finance minister today confirmed that Switzerland transmitted to U.S. authorities thousands of pages with information on people who are suspected to have committed tax fraud and on bank account, bank employees who had – but they say they will provide the key to decipher this data, only once the ongoing dispute concerning Swiss banks and bank secrecy is settled. I was wondering if you have any comment on that. It’s pretty unusual to handle that decrypted information and then to say, “We will give you the key later on.”
MR. TONER: You know what? You’re the first I’m hearing about this, so let me look into it and see if we have any reaction to it. I know this is an ongoing matter between Switzerland and the United States, but let me check and see if we have any – anything more to say.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Topic change?
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Japanese media is reporting that Mexico is trying to arrange a G-20 meeting of foreign ministers sometime in mid-February to discuss Iran and North Korea. I’m not sure if you’ve seen those reports.
MR. TONER: I have not. I would refer you to the Mexican Government though.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: Afghanistan.
QUESTION: This was reported today, as you well know, that the Karzai government intend to hold its own talk with Taliban in Saudi Arabia. And the reason as that’s been reported that they fear that they will be sidelined by United States in the negotiation in Qatar. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry – so – just apologize – you said that Karzai said that they’re going to pursue – President Karzai said --
QUESTION: They hold talks with Taliban in Saudi Arabia, not in Qatar.
MR. TONER: Well, as I think we said before, I’d refer you to the Afghan Government for any information about proposed meetings in Saudi Arabia. All I can say more largely is that all of our work on this issue thus far has been to promote Afghans speaking to Afghans in this reconciliation process. So we encourage that kind of dialogue.
QUESTION: But there’s an accusation here that they feel that --
MR. TONER: And I’m trying to address that accusation by saying that the United States’ role in this is to facilitate these reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. We’ve been very clear all along of our redlines regarding this process and with those redlines we’re in complete agreement with the Afghan Government.
QUESTION: So you would say that the United States is actually in lockstep with the Afghani Government on these talks, whether in Qatar or Saudi Arabia?
MR. TONER: I think, again, our ultimate goal here is to see this process move forward. But it’s in direct and ongoing consultation with the Karzai government.
That it? Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Thank you.
[i] Deputy Secretary Burns spoke with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov on January 29 in Addis Ababa. He spoke to First Deputy Foreign Minister Denisov by phone on January 31 to follow up on Syria.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:29 p.m.)
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