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Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
January 9, 2009



Egyptian Mediation Efforts / Ongoing Efforts in the Security Council / Preventing Hamas from Rearming
Efforts of Secretary Rice
Stopping Rocket Attacks into Israel
Immediate, Durable, Sustainable, Non-Time-Limited Cease-fire
Humanitarian Aid
UN Resolution / Efforts of Foreign Countries
Stopping Smuggling Through Tunnels / Supporting Legitimate Trade
2005 Movement and Access Agreement
Palestinian Security Forces / Operations in West Bank and Gaza
Hamas a Terrorist Organization / Hamas Unable to Provide for Citizens of Gaza
UN Resolution and the Mubarak Initiative / Consulting With Egyptians and Israelis
Humanitarian Corridors / USAID Briefing / Report from USAID Administrator Fore / Secretary Rice’s Call to Prime Minister Olmert About Humanitarian Situation
Secretary Rice’s Calls to Foreign Leaders and Domestic Advisors


View Video

12:08 p.m. EST

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. I know you have heard from the Secretary of State and probably – about a number of questions that are on your mind, but I’m here to take anything else that might be of interest to you.

Who wants to start?

QUESTION: I’ll start.


QUESTION: I know that she said that she wanted to wait until the – to see if the Egyptian mediation efforts would bear fruit, and that’s why the U.S. abstained. But could you expand on that? I mean, what does that mean precisely? I mean --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, if you listen to what she --

QUESTION: -- if you support the goals --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- if you listen to what she says -- if you listen to what she said, she said she wanted to see those efforts mature a bit so that there could be a greater understanding on the ground, you know, maybe concrete understandings of those critical elements that are part of a durable cease-fire, in terms of ending smuggling, opening those – opening these crossings, ensuring that Hamas can’t rearm. So that those efforts are currently ongoing. And what she was trying to do up in New York is to synch up the efforts ongoing in New York at the Security Council, along with the efforts that were taking place in the region. Because while you can pass resolutions, and it was an important resolution to pass last night, and we – as she said, we fully support the text, the objectives, and the goals of that resolution, you’re not going to get to a cease-fire until you’re able to really answer those questions on the ground that we’re talking about, in terms of how to prevent Hamas from rearming, and how to open those crossings.

QUESTION: So she was more making a statement than anything, because --

MR. MCCORMACK: No. No, no, no.

QUESTION: -- the U.S. allowed the resolution to go forward. I mean, it’s not --

MR. MCCORMACK: Not only -- I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I mean, let me put it as plainly as I possibly can. That resolution never would have come into being as it was, without the efforts of Condoleezza Rice.

QUESTION: Exactly --


QUESTION: -- which is why it just perplexes one to know why she would spend 48 hours negotiating the text, supporting all of its premises, wanting it to go forward, but not voting for it and not giving the UN Security Council the kind of unanimous consensus that --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think she explained it. Look, it’s a nuanced argument. I understand that. But you know, again, we’re not in control of how fast the Mubarak initiative moves forward. We would like to see that move forward as quickly as possible, and it is moving forward. But we didn’t control that. In a perfect world, the – all of the questions about those elements that I was talking about would have been answered, either concomitantly or before the passage of the resolution last night. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and that was not the circumstance. And I think she explained her reasoning there. And if you look carefully at what she’s saying, it’s a, you know, perfectly consistent argument.

QUESTION: But doing that, you appear allowing Israel to keep bombing the civilian populations in Gaza. It’s very bad for U.S. image. It doesn’t bother you?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, the resolution if you look at it, there is in the resolution the idea of sequencing, that you are going to have a stop to rocket attacks and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel that will allow the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza, so there’s an idea of sequencing here. And I would note that Hamas has rejected the cease-fire.

But in terms of -- I mean, we always get this question and my reply is always that we can only explain as best we can our policies and the reasoning behind our policy and try to – you know, try to have people understand. I can’t control people’s perceptions. But the fact that that resolution did move forward last night – and again, I repeat, it wouldn’t have moved forward without the strenuous efforts of Secretary Rice -- I think that says a lot about our desire not only to see a cease-fire that is immediate, durable, sustainable and non-time-limited, but also concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The fact that you do have these humanitarian corridors that we’re opening up came about as a result of Secretary Rice’s phone calls to Prime Minister Olmert – I lost track of the days here – about three days ago, the date that we left. And I think we’re going to have a briefing – what, at 1:30 – about 1:30 this afternoon with our USAID people for all of you about our ongoing humanitarian assistance.

So we try to let our actions speak for themselves, and when they don’t, we try to explain exactly the reasoning behind them.

QUESTION: Yeah, but did you --

QUESTION: Well, Sean – you know, but here’s the problem. Your – the logic seems to be a bit strained here, because you do – you can control the perception or other people’s perceptions. And what you do affects those perceptions. And by refusing to vote for a resolution that you yourself say the Secretary spent hours and hours and hours negotiating, you send a signal that you’re really not on board.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I – no, and I would just say that for – and I was standing there when these conversations were taking place, so I can offer a firsthand account. Her talking to the Arab foreign ministers who were there, I think they understood perfectly well and understood the consistency of this logic as to what we were doing. And I can tell you the – because I witnessed it – the appreciation that they expressed to her for working on this resolution, staying up there, going more than the extra mile to get this resolution done.

And there were a lot – look, I’m not at all discounting the efforts of anybody else, Foreign Minister Kouchner, Foreign Minister Miliband, the Arab foreign ministers. But I was there to see some of those Arab foreign ministers come up to her in particular, off to the side, out of the public view to thank her for moving this forward. And they – and she explained to them quite clearly before the vote exactly where we stood and I’ll let them speak for themselves. But I think that they understood what she was doing.

QUESTION: Well, but you say the consistency of the logic. It’s completely inconsistent --


QUESTION: -- to work so hard for something and then not vote for it.

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, Matt, look –you know, I can only lay out the explanation for you that I have and that she has, both last night and just – you know, just half an hour ago upstairs as to the reasoning of this. And I tried to explain – look, in a perfect world, these efforts, both of which are required to bring about an end to this crisis, both in New York and on the ground in Cairo, would have been perfectly synchronous. But the fact of the matter is the world didn’t work that way.

QUESTION: Well, isn’t --

MR. MCCORMACK: But – so what we did is we tried to come up with what we thought was the best possible solution.

QUESTION: But isn’t the fact of the matter is the only reason that this went through, and the only thing she did do was not to veto it?

MR. MCCORMACK: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Was it because it was --

QUESTION: Well, I mean, it just – it --

QUESTION: -- because it calls for a cease-fire?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, it – well, no, it calls – it calls for – it calls for – and these words are not separable – immediate, sustainable, durable cease-fire.

QUESTION: But the sticking point was calls instead of stresses the urgency. So because it calls, she couldn’t vote for it.

MR. MCCORMACK: That – you know, you just got that wrong, Sylvie. Look, you know, we can go round and round. I can repeat for you exactly what I’ve said. I believe that anybody – a fair reading of my transcript, of her transcript, both from last night and the one that will be produced from her remarks upstairs – a fair reading of it would quite clearly lead people through the logic train here.

I take your point, Matt. I understand it is a nuanced argument. But I think the logic is – I think the logic train is quite clear, and we’ve tried to lay it out as best we can.

QUESTION: Well, (inaudible) derailed --

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, that’s your interpretation of it.

QUESTION: -- you know, minutes ago.

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, there’s nothing I can do about that, Matt. For you, it is derailed. I think for – certainly, for the people in the room that were up there last night, it was quite clear.

QUESTION: The people in the room saw that she wanted the resolution to go ahead and, you know, didn’t want to veto it, but doesn’t want to put the U.S. stamp of approval on the actual language that she negotiated.

MR. MCCORMACK: Elise, let me – if you indulge me here for a second, I can get you the -- her remarks. Let’s see. I don’t – I thought that I had the full text of her remarks. But look at --

QUESTION: But what practical – what practical – I mean, what practical --

MR. MCCORMACK: Elise, look at her words. Read her words.

QUESTION: Okay, but it has absolutely no practical effect, so it’s more of a statement.

MR. MCCORMACK: Her words don’t have a practical effect?

QUESTION: No, the vote – the U.S. – the U.S. abstention was not a veto, and it let it go ahead. So by the U.S. saying we don’t support this but we’re going to let it go ahead, it didn’t --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no, that’s fundamentally wrong. You’re absolutely wrong. She – look at the text of her remarks. She said we support the text of this resolution, we support the goals of this resolution, we support the objectives of this resolution.

QUESTION: But we’re not going to put our name on it.

MR. MCCORMACK: So what is --

QUESTION: And the logic --

QUESTION: But we’re not going to put our name on it.

QUESTION: -- when you go --

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt, your interpretation. You’re welcome to your --

QUESTION: It’s everyone’s interpretation but yours.

MR. MCCORMACK: Everybody – the media in this room, and so you are everybody?

QUESTION: No, I mean, Sean, everyone is grateful to the Secretary that she didn’t veto the argument, the resolution.

MR. MCCORMACK: We thank you – we thank you for your gratefulness.

QUESTION: Well, we know – I mean, and you said that everybody is grateful that she didn’t --

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, I can only offer you --

QUESTION: -- veto.

MR. MCCORMACK: -- first-hand accounts. You’re welcome to your interpretations here in the room. I can tell you that using the term “everybody” certainly didn’t include the people in the room that I saw last night.

QUESTION: Well, what kind of message are you trying to send --

MR. MCCORMACK: The message we’re trying --

QUESTION: -- with this abstention?

MR. MCCORMACK: The message we’re trying to send, Matt --

QUESTION: If you’re trying to confuse people, you’ve done a good job.

MR. MCCORMACK: We want an effective resolution to the situation on the ground, so that’s what we want.

QUESTION: So when the Secretary comes out, and you come out, and you say we support this resolution, we support the language in it, we support the goals, why – what message does it send when you don’t vote for it? I mean, it just – it’s completely inconsistent.

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt, well, you’re certainly welcome to your interpretation.

QUESTION: Well, how do you think that will be perceived in the region, in the Middle East, and, in particular, in Gaza where the humanitarian crisis is deepening every hour, according to UN agencies?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I hope how it is interpreted and, again, we’ll try to explain best we can, is that the Security Council, as a whole, acted and ensured that a resolution was passed; in particular, supporting the efforts of President Mubarak and his team to bring about the concrete actions that will really bring an end to this violence, along with Hamas stopping the rocket attacks.

And again, it’s quite clear, if you read through this resolution as well, talking about who is responsible for the origins of this conflict. It’s quite clear from reading the resolution that Hamas is responsible for this conflict beginning. And it’s quite clear that the necessary condition for the conflict to end is Hamas to stop the firing of these rockets.


QUESTION: Can I go back to Egypt, please?


QUESTION: What, in practical terms, is the U.S. hoping that Egypt will do in respect to these tunnels? Are you exerting pressure on Egypt to do something militarily? How are you going to crack down on the smuggling?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the Israelis and the Egyptians are talking precisely about these matters: How to stop the smuggling, and the smuggling that takes through the tunnels; and also how to promote legitimate trade, and that takes place through the crossing. So there have to be detailed and concrete understandings of that that are mutually acceptable to both – to all the parties, including the Palestinian Authority. And that’s what they’re working on.

Again, we have a model in place, the 2005 Movement and Access Agreement that can serve as a basis for opening up the crossings. And again, we would expect that whatever the solution is it be, at the very least, consistent with that Movement and Access Agreement.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the crossing’s fine, but the tunnels in particular?

MR. MCCORMACK: But again, they are working, the Egyptians and the Israelis are working through an understanding. They’re having meetings. That is part of – a critical part of the Mubarak initiative.

You don’t – and we absolutely agree with this idea that you have to stop the smuggling, again, which takes place through these tunnels. Because what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to end up worse off a month from now and go right back to the status quo ante where Hamas was allowed to rearm, and that you have this kind of – that they are allowed to start this kind of conflict five months, six months down the road. So that’s why details matter. That’s why the Mubarak initiative is so important.



QUESTION: From a different perspective. The work that General Zinni, General Jones, and General Dayton did, it was supposed to put in place --

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not sure I’d put all of those three together but --

QUESTION: Well, I’m not – so -- well, partly putting that together. They were supposed to help the PA with security --


QUESTION: -- and enforce some type of stability for Gaza, as well as West Bank territories. Were they – do you see that being undermined by Hamas and were they basically largely intimidated through the years with their efforts?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think if you take a look at the situation on the West Bank and the performance of the Palestinian security forces during this crisis, I think you will see a qualitative -- qualitatively different situation now than you would have seen a year ago. And that is because of the hard work of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, General Jones, General Dayton, and a lot of other people to bring about a more professional security services organization.

Now, eventually our hope is that that kind of professionalism and the control of the PA would extend to Gaza; that isn’t the case right now. So they focus, quite clearly, on the West Bank and in certain towns in the West Bank and building that out, and they’re in the process of doing that. So one would hope that over time, once you have a different situation in Gaza, that that – the presence of those kinds of Palestinian security forces could redound to the benefit of the citizens of Gaza as well.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the humanitarian situation?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, let’s spread around the questions here. We don’t want to monopolize.

Yes. I’ll get back to you. I’ll get back to you. Yeah.

QUESTION: This is going back in time, not necessarily the situation now, but do you think by designating Hamas a terrorist organization and isolating the Gaza Strip and not acknowledging the past two years as been an ongoing humanitarian crisis, due in most part to our policies? Well, because we don’t acknowledge Hamas as a democratically elected government and they were. And we monitored --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, they staged a coup in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is the – was the --

QUESTION: They were democratically elected.

MR. MCCORMACK: -- was the elected government, and President Abbas is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas staged a coup --

QUESTION: Why don’t you guys see Hamas as being democratically elected?

MR. MCCORMACK: Because they are a terrorist organization, plain and simple.

QUESTION: But they won an election with the help of former officials in the Carter Administration.

MR. MCCORMACK: Hamas is --

QUESTION: It wasn’t even (inaudible) election.

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, Hamas is a terrorist organization. I don’t think there’s – certainly in the United States, there’s no argument about that. They have a policy of using the targeting of innocent civilians and indiscriminately killing innocent people to justify some political end. We fundamentally reject that.

Now, Hamas --

QUESTION: Well, do you think there’s a chance, though, that (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: Hamas can make a different choice. And we have encouraged Hamas to make that different choice. And as far as the humanitarian suffering in Gaza over the past period of time goes, that is a result of the mismanagement and the inability of Hamas to provide for the citizens of the Gaza Strip. And we have --

QUESTION: And the blockade --

MR. MCCORMACK: And we have worked very hard to ensure – to try to ensure safe, secure, and efficient transit through the crossing points. That has not worked as well as everybody would have hoped. But we have – the United States and the international community has been particularly attentive to the humanitarian crisis that has been ongoing in Gaza. But the outside world is limited in what it can do because of Hamas and because of the kinds of policies that it intends to pursue.

QUESTION: But if you say that, why haven’t you – Israel has imposed a blockade there, which is one of the main causes for that humanitarian crisis.

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, you know, we differ --

QUESTION: And you don’t --

MR. MCCORMACK: -- we differ on the origins of the humanitarian crisis.

QUESTION: And I have one last question about --


QUESTION: You mentioned how we’re – how the media is covering it. How do you think the media is covering the war in Gaza?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not a media critic. You can find somebody else to do that.


QUESTION: If I can go back to the resolution.


QUESTION: You told me that the sticking point was not the problem of the resolution – the Security Council calling for a cease-fire instead of stressing the urgency of a (inaudible) -- of a cease-fire, which was what U.S. wanted. If it’s not that, what was the sticking point?

MR. MCCORMACK: Quite clearly, there wasn’t a sticking point. This came together very quickly yesterday.

QUESTION: Oh, three days. Yes, it was very quick.

MR. MCCORMACK: It came – well, that’s light speed for the Security Council. And certainly, yesterday, as you were watching this – and I know you were up there watching this, and me, I was watching it from the other side – you know, the other side of the aisle – it did come together very quickly yesterday. And that’s positive, and I think that there was a tremendous constructive spirit up at the UN to try to get this done.

We explained our reasons for voting the way that we did. But all in all, this was – we fully support the text of this resolution, the objectives, and the goals of it.

QUESTION: So what message do you – what message are you trying to send, then? If you fully support the goals, objectives, and whatever else you just said of the – what message are you trying to send --

MR. MCCORMACK: The message we’re trying to send, Matt --

QUESTION: -- by abstaining?

MR. MCCORMACK: -- is we’re trying to help solve the problem.

QUESTION: How does –


QUESTION: How does abstaining help?

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt, look, we’ve gone round and round. I have tried to explain it to you.


MR. MCCORMACK: I know that you – you’re coming at it from a different point of view, and you’re asking tough questions, and I respect that and that’s good. That’s why I’m up here. All I can do is to try to give you the best answers I possibly can. I think I’ve given you as detailed an answer as I can here. You’ve heard from the Secretary as well. And I think our explanations are consistent.

QUESTION: Well, she explained why she did it. But what about abstaining makes – I mean, how does that help Egyptian efforts mature?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, these things are proceeding on their own tracks. One would hope that what you do in both places is complementary. We are – our hope, again, in a perfect world, was that that resolution would have been referring to more specific actions that had been agreed upon as part of the Mubarak initiative. That wasn’t the case. We think, all in all, that this resolution is supportive and does further that process.

Now, all of those hopes and all of those beliefs have to be borne out by actual results from the Mubarak initiative, and we are consulting closely with the Egyptians as well the Israelis, and we are prepared to help in any way with technical – you know, technical consultations and any other – and in any other way, as we have done in the past on this issue of smuggling. But again, that – now the – that initiative needs to move forward.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like Israel is lukewarm on the resolution and Hamas is rejecting the resolution.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, Hamas has to stop firing rockets.

QUESTION: Can we go to the humanitarian situation?


QUESTION: There have been claims by numerous aid agencies – the United Nations, International Red Cross, and others – that Israel is wantonly disregarding international rules and regulations regarding conflict. The UN has said that Israeli forces have fired upon their trucks after they specifically negotiated the convoy route and movements and coordinates with them. I mean, the head of the Red Cross said he personally negotiated it with Israel. We’ve heard about other instances where aid workers were fired upon. There’s a story this morning that Palestinians were sent into a house and then the house was fired upon by Israeli forces.

What are your concerns about – about these types of incidents? How detailed are your conversations with the Israelis about them? And are you confident that Israel is adhering to international standards?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, Elise, I’m not in a position to offer you a complete assessment. The fact that we urged and negotiated humanitarian corridors is just – is an indication of our concern for the humanitarian situation. And I know from experience in talking about these things over the past eight years, anytime you have a combat situation there is going to be the fog of war and there may be misunderstandings. I can’t speak to each particular case there. We --

QUESTION: There’s a pattern, though, Sean.

MR. MCCORMACK: Look – and again, I can’t do an analysis for you up here. I can’t offer you any definitive conclusions. We want to make sure that aid flows into Gaza and then gets to the people who need it. That’s been an issue. That is why we want to have these humanitarian corridors and also move as quickly as we possibly can to end this crisis, to end this situation. Perhaps the people from AID who are going to be doing a briefing can give you a little bit better or a more clear picture as to how they see things on the ground.

It was really – just to go back a little bit, it was really that report several days ago from Henrietta Fore, who had been getting in reports from our NGO partners on the ground as well as third-country USAID employees on the ground in Gaza that really prompted Secretary Rice’s call to Prime Minister Olmert about the humanitarian situation. So I mention that just by way of saying that these people can probably provide you a more clear picture and a more detailed picture based on the accounts that they are receiving directly from Gaza.

QUESTION: But it’s not just about the aid and delivery of it, though.


QUESTION: It’s about certain international standards of --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I understand.

QUESTION: -- of not – of, yes, trying to minimize civilian casualties --


QUESTION: -- and we know you’ve spoken about that. But here, we’re talking about instances where there was a wanton disregard or accusations anyway --


QUESTION: -- a wanton disregard for civilian life.


QUESTION: And that’s a – I mean, those are political discussions that would take place --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no, I understand.

QUESTION: -- between the Secretary and leaders of --

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, I understand what you’re saying, Elise. Look, I can’t offer you a full assessment of these allegations. Israeli leaders have said otherwise. You know, I’m not in a position to contradict what they have stated.


QUESTION: Can you bring us up to date on any calls since New York? Have there been any calls today? Do you have any total of calls?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no calls today that are – I did a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation of the number of calls since this crisis erupted. And I think with foreign counterparts, we’re, you know, up over 80 phone calls during that period of time. And I think if you throw in her phone calls with – domestically with advisors, I think you’re, you know, either near or over 200, I’m sure. I can’t do the full total for you. That’s my best guess for you. But in terms of foreign counterparts, we’re up over 80.


QUESTION: Earlier in the week, I mentioned that our reporters on the ground reported cluster bombs and depleted uranium. Now we have the Norwegian doctor that confirmed that in international news, if you will, and that goes into play with the rules and regulations of conflict using white phosphorous, depleted uranium, and cluster bombs. That’s a violation of international law, which would constitute war crimes. Is – do you think that goes – does that sound about right?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, let me look --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) conventional (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: I pledge to you to try to generate an answer for you. I just don’t have – you know, I’ve heard the question from you, seen the reports. I don’t have a response in terms of facts for you. Let me try to generate an answer for you.

QUESTION: Could you – while you’re doing that, could you also look into what sort of export control regulations are in place? Do you consider the, you know, use of U.S.-purchased weapons in accordance with export controls considering, you know, Israel claims this as their self-defense --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right, right.

QUESTION: -- but, you know, because of the civilian component? Thank you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Happy to.

All right.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Back here, and then we’ll get to you back there.

QUESTION: An overwhelming majority of the people in the Middle East view Egypt as an American puppet government, and therefore – and this is simply because we fund them almost as much as we do Israel --

MR. MCCORMACK: They view who as a --



QUESTION: The Republic of Egypt.


QUESTION: And so they don’t view them as an honest broker in finding – in finding a truce with Hamas. Are you looking to any other governments in the region to try to work out the situation with Hamas aside from Egypt?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, the Egyptian Government has taken on this role itself. We don’t have any dealings with Hamas, directly or indirectly. I can assure you that the Egyptian Government acts solely and only in the best interests of Egypt and the Egyptian people, while it is also a good friend and ally of the United States.

QUESTION: And the last question. There is a report out that says that Obama might engage in low-level conversations with Hamas. Is it – are you guys working with the transition team on something to that degree?

MR. MCCORMACK: Any questions about the future policies of the future administration should be directed to the transition team.


MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I think you had one more back here. Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Can I ask on a different topic?


QUESTION: What have you heard about Asia or simply about North Korea from Mr. Negroponte?

MR. MCCORMACK: I haven’t heard anything back; at least myself, I haven’t heard any reports back. I’m sure that he will report back to the Secretary when he’s back in the office.


QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 12:34 p.m.)

DPB # 5

Released on January 9, 2009

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