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Erdogan vows to strangle US 'terror army' in Syria and invade Kurdish enclave

Turkish president slams US-organised 'border force', and says preparations are complete to attack canton of Afrin

Areeb Ullah
Monday 15 January 2018 13:03 UTC
Last update: Monday 15 January 2018 13:47 UTC

Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday promised he would stop a Kurd-led border force being created by the US, and said final preparations were under way to invade the Kurdish canton of Afrin, as tensions rose once again between the ostensible allies over Syria.

His speech in Ankara came a day after the US announced it would form a 30,000-strong border force led by the Kurdish YPG militia - a group Turkey regards as terrorist and linked to the PKK organisation in Turkey.

"A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our border," said Erdogan. "What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it's even born."

"This is what we have to say to all our allies: don't get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences," Erdogan said.

"Either you take off your flags on those terrorist organisations, or we will have to hand those flags over to you ...Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000 of them."

Erdogan also said that Turkey's armed forces had completed preparations for an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin in northwest Syria. On Sunday, he told members of his AKP party: "If the terrorists in Afrin don't surrender, we will tear them down." 

Russia also opposed the US plan, warning that it could lead to the partitioning of Syria.

The plans for a border force include 15,000 fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia dominated by the Kurdish YPG.

The forces are expected to be deployed along the border with Turkey, in northern Syria, the Iraqi border in the southeast, and along the Euphrates river valley.

The SDF played a strategic role in helping the US-led coalition in Syria defeat the Islamic State group.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, warned that for Turkey, the US-backed border was a "slap in the face" and has inflamed tensions between the two countries. 

"Even though the relationship has come under duress, they are not going to cut the umbilical cord the two sides have," Gerges told MEE. 

"If it were up to Trump then he would give up on the Kurds and ask why America is infuriating Turkey. 

"Fact is that the Kurds have been the most loyal an vital ally to the Americans. They have shed blood to destroy the base of the Islamic State and this matters to the US."

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Gulf tension: Are Egypt and Sudan about to go to war?

Cairo and Khartoum have allied themselves with opposing power blocs, building on inherent tension between the neighbouring countries

Mohammed Amin
Saturday 13 January 2018 09:46 UTC
Last update:
Saturday 13 January 2018 10:54 UTC

KHARTOUM - Tension between Egypt and Sudan has increased this week amid military build-ups on their borders and fears that the crisis in the Gulf has now spread to eastern Africa.

Turkish media reported on 4 January that Egyptian forces have arrived in Eritrea, which borders eastern Sudan, with backing from the UAE and opposition groups from the region.

That same day, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo, then two days later declared a state of emergency in Kassala state, which neighbours Eritrea, and shut the border without explanation. Eyewitnesses in Kassala have since said that large numbers of troops have passed through, heading towards the border area.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, said Cairo was "comprehensively assessing the situation with a view to making the appropriate response".

The increase in tension comes just weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Khartoum, the first visit by a Turkish leader since the Ottoman Empire withdrew from Sudan in 1885. Sudan and Turkey signed 13 agreements during the December visit, including military accords.

Cairo didn't officially comment on Erdogan’s visit, but pro-government media have accused it as being a conspiracy against Egyptian national security. Khartoum in turn has denied the Egyptian accusations and says that Cairo has no right to interfere in Sudanese issues.

During the past year Sudan and Egypt, which have a long-standing emnity, have increasingly allied themselves with opposing Middle Eastern power blocs. Egypt has the backing of Saudi Arabia and UAE, the key advocates of a months-long blockade against Qatar. Sudan meanwhile has allied itself with Qatar and Turkey, which has a military base in the Gulf kingdom.

This is not the first time the two countries have fallen out.

Reason 1: Disputed borders

Aside from Eritrea, two other territorial disputes have strained Sudanese-Egyptian relations during the past half century.

The province of Darfur, in western Sudan, has been riddled by war for the past two decades, with up to 300,000 dead and at least 2.7 million displaced.

In May last year, President Omar al-Bashir said: "The Sudanese army has captured several Egyptian armoured vehicles in recent fighting in Darfur.” He has also previously accused Egyptian intelligence services of supporting opposition figures fighting his troops in the conflict zones of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

However, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dismissed the accusations and said Cairo was not playing a role in Darfur. Rebel leaders have also rejected Bashir's comments.

Then there is the Halaib Triangle to the north of Sudan, run in effect by Egypt for the past two decades and which Cairo says is Egyptian territory. The region, rich in minerals and oil, has been disputed by Egypt and Sudan since the latter became independent in 1956.

Cairo has increased its military presence in the area since 1996, despite Khartoum's repeated complaints to the UN Security Council and calls that the dispute be solved through arbitration.

In January 2016, Sudan put its forces on standby on the border with Egypt, the first time it has done so in 60 years, saying that Egypt's military was "provoking" the Sudanese army in the disputed area.

Reason 2: Deals with Turkey

Khartoum has been diplomatically and economically impoverished during the past decade. The country is still subject to international sanctions as a result of the conflict in Darfur, while Bashir is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide. South Sudan took three-quarters of the country's oil revenue when it became independent in 2011.

Small wonder then that Sudan has sought international alliances where it can. During his visit, Erdogan said that the two countries aimed to boost two-way trade from $500mn a year to $1bn in an initial stage and then to $10bn.

Turkey, meanwhile, wants to boost its influence in the region, not least near international trade routes that pass through the Suez Canal to the north and the Gulf to the east.

Ankara has been active militarily in neighbouring Somalia since 2009, when it joined the multinational counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast.

In September 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. It reportedly cost $50mn and will train 10,000 Somali troops, according to Turkish and Somali officials.

Ahmet Kavas, a former Turkish ambassador to the republic of Chad and an adviser to the prime minister on African affairs, told Middle East Eye that Turkey's presence in Africa made more sense than that of any other country.

"If you were to think of any one country that should be present in Africa, that country would be Turkey," said Kavas. "The anomaly was the 20th century, when we were largely absent from the continent and the western Europeans stepped in."

Two of the deals signed during the Erdogan drew particular drew sharp attention from Cairo.

The first leases Sudan's Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey for 99 years. Over the centuries the island has been a commercial crossroads between Africa, Europe and the Gulf, as well as a gateway heading to the Arabian peninsula for Hajj. Historically, it is home to several ancient sites, dating back to when the Ottoman Empire colonised Sudan in the 18th century.

Turkey has said that parts of the island will be restored by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency and the ministry of culture and tourism.

But Asma Al-Hussieni, editor in chief of the Egyptian daily state newspaper Al-Ahram Egyptian, said in early January that Khartoum and Turkey have secretly agreed to establish a military base on the island, threatening the shipping lanes of the Red Sea.

The second deal allows Turkey to have an enhanced presence in in Sudan's territorial waters across police, security, military and defence ministries, ostensibly to protect Sudanese naval ships as well as fight terrorism.

Sudanese security expert and retired general Alabas Alamin said that Turkey's increased presence in the Red Sea is a "breakthrough for Turkish ambitions, which worries the Arab countries aligned with Saudi Arabia, especially Egypt".

There have been complaints about the deals from within Sudan. Abdallah Musa is a leading member of the Beja congress party, which represented a former rebel movement in eastern Sudan that signed a peace deal with the government in 2006.

He said the move is "a violation of the Sudanese sovereignty that will put Sudan in a critical situation amid regional conflicts" and that Egypt and Gulf states could be blackmailed if the waters were closed, disrupting oil routes to international markets.

However, the Turkish ambassador to Sudan, Irfan Neziroglu, denied Turkey would become involved in international affairs on Sudanese territories. "Turkey and Sudan have nothing to hide over the Red Sea or Suakin island," he told MEE. "What we announced openly is what will going to happen in the Red Sea."

Reason 3: Gulf alliances

The Gulf crisis which began in summer 2016 saw the Middle East divided between a power bloc opposed to Qatar which included Saudi, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt, and supporters of Doha, which include Turkey and Iran.

Emad Hussien, editor in chief of Sudan's Alshorooq newspaper, said: "Khartoum is clearly pragmatic and opportunistic as it jumps from one camp to another without any strategic goals other than to break the isolation of the regime."

Alhaj Warag, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Turkey's Hurriyat online, said on Egyptian TV that Turkish ambitions have pushed Khartoum to build its current partnership with Ankara - but that this could put Sudan in a difficult position.

Sudan, Warag observed, had shifted from alliances with Iran to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to Turkey and Qatar. "Playing the regional axis to draw some benefits will end up having a serious effect on Sudan."

Musa warned that Sudan risked becoming the next Yemen. There, three years of war between sides backed by rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have ripped the country asunder.

"To solve its economic crisis, Khartoum is putting the entire country in the middle of the regional polarisation," Musa said, "but that will lead to serious consequences."

Reason 4: Africa's biggest dam

Egypt is deeply worried about the impact on its water supply of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, now being built near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan and set to be the largest on the continent.

Addis Ababa hopes the $5bn project will lift a large segment of its more than 80 million people out of poverty as well as allow it to sell on the energy produced and boost the economy.

But in Egypt, where around 90 percent of the population live on or near the banks of the Nile, there are fears that there will be less water for irrigating crops. Cairo is also concerned that Sudan, through which the Nile flows, will side with Ethiopia in talks over the dam.

In December, Ethiopian media reported that Egypt wanted to exclude Sudan from the talks and invite the World Bank to arbitrate.

The Egyptian foreign ministry has denied the suggestion, stressing that Sudan is part of the talks that can't be excluded.

But a Sudanese diplomat asked for anonymous because he is not authorised to the talk to the media told MEE the report was correct, adding: "The Egyptian stance regarding the dam is regrettable. Such moves from Egypt are unacceptable as they will only lead to more complications during the talks over the dam rather than solving the disputes."

Reason 5: The Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after he drove his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, from office in July 2013. Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now banned in Egypt and whose members have been subject to unfair trials and torture, according to human rights groups.

In contrast, Sudan's Bashir rose to power in 1989 amid a military coup backed by the brotherhood and its leader, Hassan Alturabi, whom the current president later ousted when the organisation split in 1999.

Egyptian pro-government media have repeatedly accused Sudan of harbouring Egyptian members of the brotherhood, an accusation which has been denied by the Sudanese authorities.

Under the title of "Al-Bashir and the political suicide" Emad Adib, a columnist for Al-Watan, daily Egyptian newspaper wrote that "Sudan is conspiring with Turkey and Qatar against Egypt".

Turkey has been supportive of the brotherhood: in February 2017, Erdogan said he did not consider it "an armed group, but is in actual fact an ideological organisation" and that if they had been associated with terrorism then they would have been driven from Turkey.

Hassan Ali, a political science professor at Alazhari University, believes the tension over the brotherhood is a sign of the ideological divide between Khartoum's Islamist government and the leadership in Egypt, which is increasingly having to deal with attacks in Sinai since the ousting of Morsi.

"These ideological differences are the main cause of tension between the two sides. The remaining issues including Halaib, the Ethiopian dam, and others are pending issues that been used as cards by the two sides to put pressure on each other."

So will there be war?

Yet despite the disagreements over dams and brotherhoods, islands and power blocs, experts believe it is in neither country's interest to engage in war.

Abdul Moniem Abu Idriss, a Sudanese political analyst, believes that the current tension is unlikely to descend from diplomatic and media spats into open military conflict.

Both countries, he said, are suffering deep economic crises, which will curtail their ability to fight or engage in escalation.

"Since 2011, these two neighbours have been suffering economic deterioration. Sudan has lost has the majority of its oil revenues since the separation of South Sudan in that year.

"Meanwhile Egypt's tourism, which is a vital sector for the Egyptian economy, has been hit by the continuous terror attacks."

Egypt also goes to the polls in March – and a wave of nationalist fervour, sparked by relations with Sudan, might strengthen the hand of Sisi with his previous background as defence minister, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and director of military intelligence.

Idriss also believes that each side is "attempting to create an imaginary enemy to draw the attention of the two nations from their realistic and daily life needs that they failed to provide".

"Even the Egyptian military presence in Sudan, especially in Halaib, is old and dates back to 1996, so I don't think that there is something new in this regard," he added.

And despite Turkey's pledges to back Khartoum in any Egyptian attack on the Red Sea coast, both sides are too fatigued for war.

Alhaj Hamad, director of the Sudanese Centre for Social and Human Development, said: "The two dictatorships in these two countries actually want to draw the attention of the people away from their domestic crises."

He said that neither side could afford even the pretence of engaging in open war. "I don't think that they will go further. This current situation is best called the balance of weaknesses."

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Why North Korea Is Likely Planning a Satellite Launch in 2018

It’s certainly looking like Kim Jong-un may look to launch a new satellite or two in 2018.

By Ankit Panda
January 12, 2018

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited a known site for missile research and development in December 2017, likely to provide guidance on an anticipated satellite launch in 2018, The Diplomat has learned. According to U.S. government sources who spoke to The Diplomat on the condition of anonymity, U.S. military intelligence, in addition to tracking Kim’s visit to the site, also tracked the movement of components associated with a new North Korean satellite launch vehicle (SLV) near the facility shortly after Kim’s visit. This suggests that a new North Korean satellite launch in 2018 may be a possibility; North Korea last launched a satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-4, in February 2016.

Kim Goes to Sanum-dong

The site known as the Sanum-dong Missile Research and Development Facility, or Sanum-dong Research Center (SDRC), by the U.S. intelligence community is known to host missile- and satellite-launcher-related developmental work. Kim Jong-un visited the facility, presumably to offer guidance, on December 21, three weeks after the first successful launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missile. Kim is known to personally inspect missile- and satellite-related facilities; many, but not all, of his visits are broadcast to the world through North Korea’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun and state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV).

While Kim’s visit is not readily corroborated in open source resources, commercially available satellite imagery offers evidence of a sudden uptick in activity at SDRC starting on December 21. To take a closer look, The Diplomat spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Using Planet Labs Inc.’s daily imagery of the site from the week of Kim’s visit, Lewis found a tell-tale sign of ongoing activity: disappearing snow. As late as December 22, it’s apparent that most of the SDRC facilities, including a known rocket assembly building, are initially covered in snow, at least through December 22.

After December 22, the snow is no longer visible on the rocket assembly building, suggesting to Lewis that it had either melted due to potential heat generation within the building or been intentionally removed. Nearby buildings remain snow-covered between the two dates, suggesting some sort of special activity at the rocket assembly building and ruling out a drastic change in weather as the cause for snow’s removal. Readers can pan between the two images to observe the differences here.

The building circled in the annotated image above is known to be associated with SLV and ballistic missile assembly specifically and Kim has visited it before to inspect ongoing SLV work ahead of an eventual launch. Dave Schmerler, a researcher and North Korea analyst who works with Lewis, had analyzed undated footage of Kim inspecting the February 2016 Kwangmyongsong-4 launcher at an unidentified facility and was able to geolocate the scene to this specific building at SDRC in 2016. The idea of Kim repeating an inspection of ongoing work on a new SLV in December 2017 ahead of an anticipated 2018 launch is thus more than just plausible. (Sanum-dong, unlike other sites associated with North Korea’s strategic weapons programs, is a short and convenient drive from Kim’s main residence in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.)

What’s more, recent high resolution satellite imagery of the SDRC site shows even greater activity since Kim’s visit. In the image below, for example, a large cluster of vehicles are visible right outside the rocket assembly building, suggesting ongoing activity. According to a U.S. government source who spoke to The Diplomat, U.S. military intelligence detected what appeared to be a heavy transporter for the first stage booster of a satellite launcher at the SDRC site on January 2, just over a week before the image below was captured.

U.S. military intelligence closely monitors SDRC throughout the year given that it is one of the primary sites for North Korea’s manufacturing of production and prototype ballistic missiles. Through 2017, U.S. military intelligence observed activity nearly weekly at SDRC; various North Korean ballistic missiles were regularly observed moving around the facility on their transporters, according to intelligence assessments shared with The Diplomat.

Context Before Kim’s Visit to Sanum-dong

Kim’s visit to SDRC also occurred shortly after North Korea convened the 8th Conference of its Munitions Industry. Footage of the conference released by KCTV showed a prominent display of the three new long-range ballistic missiles North Korea tested successfully in 2017 — the Hwasong-12/KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile, Hwasong-14/KN20 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM), and Hwasong-15/KN22 ICBM — and what appears to be a satellite launch vehicle, most likely the Unha-3.

Secondary evidence suggestive of an upcoming satellite launch emerged first in the press in December 2017. The North Korea-focused news site NK News first featured an account from a Russian expert who had recently been to North Korea and been told by “representatives of the National Aerospace Development Administration” in November 2017 that North Korea was planning to launch “two new satellites.”

The author, Khrustalev Vladimir, provided additional detail conveyed to him by North Korean representatives, including that at least one of the two planned satellites may be considerably larger than any previous satellite payload attempted by Pyongyang. Since Vladimir’s account in NK News, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kim In-ryong, told a UN General Assembly committee on the peaceful uses of outer space that North Korea planned to launch more satellites “that can contribute to the economic development and improvement of the people’s living.”

What Kind of SLV and Satellite?

On December 30, compounding accounts of new satellites in NK News and elsewhere, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun published a report noting that Kim had directed top military officers and scientists at the munitions industry conference to complete work on a new SLV by September 2018 for a launch to coincide with the 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of North Korea in 1948 by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. If Kim is planning to launch a considerably larger and more ambitious satellite, timing the launch close to a prominent anniversary may make sense. (The Kwangmyongsong-4, for example, was launched slightly over a week before what would have been Kim Jong-il’s 74th birthday in 2016.)

For now, U.S. intelligence suspects that work on a new North Korean SLV may well be underway at SDRC for a potential launch in the second half of 2018. Commercially available satellite imagery establishes that activity is ongoing at Sanum-dong’s rocket assembly building. What remains unclear is what specific sort of SLV design North Korea may choose to deploy in this new launcher. Its SLVs, going back to the Taepodong-1 in the 1990s, have mostly made use of older Scud- and Nodong-derived engines. (Its most recent SLV, for instance, featured a cluster of four Nodong engines for the first stage booster.) It is possible that the twin-chambered, 80-ton engine that North Korea first tested in September 2016 and described as “a new type high-power engine of a carrier rocket for the geo-stationary satellite” may finally see use in an SLV after first appearing successfully in the Hwasong-15 ICBM. (ICBMs and SLVs, though divergent in purpose, can share design commonalities; the Soviet Union’s first ICBM, the R-7 Semyorka, would go on to launch Sputnik-1 and other satellites, for example.)

If accounts of a larger and functional satellite payload are accurate too, this SLV may require a larger payload fairing than the slender-tipped upper stages of the Unha SLVs used for the Kwangmyongsong series of satellites would permit. The December 2012 and February 2016 Unha launches successfully inserted their payloads into orbit, but neither the Kwangmyongsong-3 nor the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellites offer North Korea any known benefit. If Kim seeks to deliver a large and functional satellite to geosynchronous orbit, potentially to offer the country’s military some sort of space-based sensor capability, the final SLV may end up looking quite different from everything we’ve seen North Korea launch to date. (The Kwangmyongsong-4, the largest North Korean satellite payload to date, is estimated to have weighed as much as 200 kilograms.)

Lewis agrees. “If North Korea is going to continue its run of surprising ‘firsts,’ then the logical next step for its space program is to place a satellite in geostationary orbit,” he told The Diplomat. “That will require a bigger rocket than the Unha series.”


Any North Korean satellite launch in 2018 would have serious political and diplomatic consequences and be in violation of the country’s commitments under UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. While North Korea defends its space activities as peaceful and the legitimate right of any country, a satellite launch would assuredly invite diplomatic condemnation from the international community and possibly lead to the expansion of sanctions at the UNSC. The Trump administration has recently welcomed inter-Korean diplomacy ahead of the Winter Olympics, reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula after a particularly tense 2017, but a new satellite launch may reverse this trend. However, a satellite launch, if scheduled for September, may be preceded by further ballistic missile testing or exercises as North Korea feels compelled to respond to the U.S.-South Korea Key Resolve exercises in April 2018.

Despite the almost assured negative consequences for the regime internationally, North Korea appears undeterred and work on a new SLV is ongoing. In defending his country’s space activities at the UN General Assembly committee in December, Kim In-ryong said his country’s will “to produce and launch artificial satellites will not be changed just because the U.S. denies it.” There’s little reason not to take Kim’s statement at face value. As U.S. intelligence and open source evidence show, North Korea is almost certainly on track to launch a new satellite in the coming year.

Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) is a senior editor at The Diplomat, where he writes on politics, security, and economics in the Asia-Pacific. The author is grateful to Jeffrey Lewis and Dave Schmerler for satellite imagery analysis to accompany this article.

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Egyptian branch of ISIS declares war on Hamas as tensions rise in Sinai

January 12, 2018 by Joseph Fitsanakis

The Islamic State in Egypt’s Sinai Province has declared war on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a move that experts say will furhter-complicate an already volatile security situation in eastern Egypt. Many observers see the group, Wilayat Sinai, as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai was behind the 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268, which killed all 224 passengers and crew onboard, most of them Russians. The same group killed 311 people at a Sufi mosque in November of last year, in what has become known as the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history.

Israeli sources claim that, in the past, Wilayat Sinai has had limited cooperation with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, a coastal section of the Palestinian territories that borders with Egypt’s Sinai Province. The two organizations are believed to have engaged in limited cross-border arms-smuggling, while some injured Wilayat Sinai fighters have been treated in Gaza Strip hospitals. But the two groups have major ideological differences that contribute to their increasingly tense relationship. The Islamic State objects to participation in democratic elections, which it sees as efforts to place human will above divine law. It has thus condemned Hamas’ decision to participate in the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. Additionally, even though it promotes Sunni Islam, Hamas is far less strict in its religious approach than the Islamic State, and does not impose Sharia (Islamic law based on the Quran) in the territory it controls. Furthermore, Hamas suppresses Saudi-inspired Wahhabism and its security forces often arrest ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Gaza Strip. In the past month, ISIS accused Hamas of having failed to prevent America’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Additionally, ISIS is opposed to the support that Hamas receives from Iran, a Shiite nation that ISIS regards as heretical.

There are reports that Hamas has been quietly collaborating with Egypt and even Israel in recent months, in order to combat the rise of ISIS in the region. For several months now, the Palestinian group has exercised stricter control over its seven-mile-long border with Egypt. It has rebuilt border barriers that had previously been destroyed and has installed security fences and a digital surveillance system. It has also launched a public-relations effort to shame the families of young men from Gaza who have joined ISIS forces in Sinai. In response to these moves, Wilayat Sinai has publicly urged its supporters to kill members of Hamas and attack the group’s security installations and public buildings. The ISIS-affiliated group has also urged its members to eliminate members of the small Shiite Muslim community in the Gaza strip. According to experts, the decision by Wilayat Sinai to declare war on Hamas means that the group has now virtually surrounded itself with adversaries. The move may also increase informal collaboration between Hamas and the Israeli government, say observers.

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Journalist Fired for Reporting CIA Connection to Terrorist Arms

10 January 2018

In July of 2017, investigative journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva broke a bombshell report in the Trud newspaper, the largest Bulgarian daily newspaper. The story exposed a convert weapons shipment network to terrorist in groups in Syria via diplomatic flights, under the CIA’s watch.

Since then, the journalist says the Bulgarian authorities have interrogated her, have demanded she reveals her sources and the newspaper eventually fired her.

Following a month-long investigation, Gaytandzhieva says she found an Azerbaijan state airline was frequently transporting weapons to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey under diplomatic cover. The transportation of weaponry was, according to Gaytandzhieva, part of the CIA’s secret programme to supply anti-Assad fighter in Syria. The Bulgarian journalist says she found that the weapons made their way to al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

American Companies Implicated in Weapons Flights

In the report, Gaytandzhieva published a number of secret internal memos that had been leaked to her by an anonymous source.

In July this year, Trud published Gaytandzhieva’s report about Azerbaijan’s Silk Way Airlines carrying weapons with diplomatic clearance for Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Congo.

The story, which can be (1) read on Trud’s websites, notes how in December 2016, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva found and filmed nine underground warehouses full of heavy weapons with Bulgaria as their country of origin in Eastern Aleppo.

The report implicates American companies as being amongst the main customers of the “diplomatic flights for weapons” service provided by Silk Way Airline. The report states:

“According to the register of federal contracts, over the last three years American companies were awarded $1 billion contracts in total under a special US government program for non-US standard weapon supplies. All of them used Silk Way Airline for the transport of weapons. In some cases when Silk Way was short of aircrafts due to a busy schedule, Azerbaijan Air Force aircrafts transported the military cargo, although the weapons never reached Azerbaijan.”

The report goes on to state how the federal contracts registry signed a $26.7 million contract with Purple Shovel, a Veterans Administration (VA) certified service, which affords its clients with a single point of contact to transport materials and aid to anywhere in the world.

Silk Way Airling Flights

Gaytandzhieva’s story talks of US contractors involved in the same program for non-US standard military supplies. According to the report, Orbital ATK received more than $250 million in just two years and transported weapons on six diplomatic Silk Way Airline flights in the summer of 2015, flying from Azerbaijan to Bosnia and to Afghanistan.

Following the publication of her report, the Bulgarian investigative journalist, says she was interrogated, faced with demands to reveal her sources and eventually fired for exposing how the CIA ran weapons to terrorists through Azerbaijan.

On August 24, Gaytandzhieva posted a tweet, reading:

“I’ve just got fired for telling the truth about weapons supplies for terrorists in Syria on diplomatic flights.”

In (2) an interview with News Front, the journalist spoke of how she was fired without any explanation. Gaytandzhieva said in August she received a phone call from a special agent from the Bulgarian National Security Agency, who asked her to come to the premises without explaining the reasons for her being questioned.

She went to the office and they interrogated her about her sources. The journalist said she understood they had launched an investigation into the leaked documents about the weapon supplies for terrorists. Gaytandzhieva says she realized the Bulgarian officials were not investigating the content of the documents but rather the way she had received them.

A few hours later Gaytandzhieva got a phone call from the newspaper where she worked and was forced to sign her resignation letter. So far, she doesn’t understand the reason why she why her contract suspended.

Bulgaria Corporate Government Media

Gaytandzhieva went on to say how instead of having independent media, Bulgaria has mainstream, corporate media, which follows the official government agenda. As a result, it is very difficult for investigative journalists to speak up.

“It is about journalism in general,” says Gaytandzhieva, adding how her story shows how journalists are not allowed to work freely and independently. Gaytandzhieva also said how she is grateful for the likes of News Front and (3) RT for allowing her to explain the situation and reveal the truth.

Dilyana Gaytandzhieva’s story is the latest example of authorities attempting to quash journalists from reporting uncomfortable truths, thereby violating the freedom of speech.

References & Image Credits:
(1) Trud
(2) YouTube
(3) YouTube

Originally published on

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Syria’s war is far from over

The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018

Christopher Phillips
Wednesday 10 January 2018 09:59 UTC
Wednesday 10 January 2018 15:30 UTC

The year 2017 was a good one for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic State's (IS) "caliphate" was largely destroyed, squeezed by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on one side and by the American-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

Assad's mainstream rebel opponents were largely abandoned by their external backers and pummelled by his allies, leaving them in isolated pockets, divided and politically marginalised.

His position will likely be further boosted by the upcoming Russian-led "peace congress" in Sochi in late January, in which Moscow hopes to broker a deal that will bring in some Kurdish and opposition elements while ultimately leaving Assad in control.

However, even if Russia can reach some kind of viable agreement, many [opposition groups] are likely to remain excluded. Moreover, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have been far from conciliatory over the past six years of war and few would be surprised if any agreement was ultimately undermined or ignored.

Far from over

Indeed, it seems likely that whatever happens in Sochi, Syria's war is far from over. The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018, even if Assad's position is secure.

Firstly, Assad and his allies appear committed to militarily defeating the remnants of the rebels. The rebels, including a sizeable Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) presence, currently hold four main territories: Idlib province, Rastan near Homs, some suburbs around Damascus (notably Eastern Ghouta) and an area along the Jordanian and Israeli border in the south.

While these were declared "de-escalation zones" last year in Moscow-led agreements, in reality Assad, Iran and Russia have frequently broken these ceasefires. The truces allowed forces loyal to Assad a respite to direct their forces eastward as IS collapsed, reclaiming former "caliphate" territory and denying it to the US-aligned SDF.

Now that IS is largely gone, Assad and his allies are directing their elite troops back on the rebels.

Already January has begun with the Syrian government's offensive in Idlib, with the apparent goal to cleave from the rebels the less populated eastern part of the province around Abu ad Duhur. This may be the preamble to a government push on Idlib city, though much will depend on whether Russia can obtain tacit agreement from Turkey, who would likely receive many refugees from the province, currently estimated to have a population of two million.

With the denominate force in Idlib being HTS, viewed as terrorists by Russia, the US and Turkey, and most of the other rebel groups there reluctant to engage at Sochi, correctly seeing it as submission to Assad, conflict at some point seems inevitable.

Capturing 'every inch'

A similar fate probably awaits the other rebel pockets. Some, perhaps Rastan and parts of the south, may be persuaded to compromise with Assad, either via Sochi or later deals. But Assad, confident in his position, will likely target Eastern Ghouta in Damascus militarily, being the source of the last remaining rocket attacks on the capital.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 417,000 Syrians remain living in besieged areas, the majority of them in the Ghouta region. Any military campaigns in Idlib and Ghouta then would likely be violent, take a heavy toll on lives and create yet more refugees.

Secondly, beyond the continued conflict with the rebels, the future relationship between Assad and the Kurds remains uncertain and could descend into violence. At present the SDF and Syrian government forces face each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates, while retaining isolated pockets in each other's territory.

However, despite assurances from the Pentagon of a prolonged US presence, the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, Washington's recent unwillingness to prevent the fall of Kirkuk and the US's historical tendency to sell out Kurdish interests has led many Syrian Kurds to be wary.

Assad and the Kurds

Consequently some expect the PYD, the Kurdish force that dominates the SDF and is attending Sochi in an unofficial capacity, to cut a deal with Assad via Russia. Surrendering the Arab-majority lands along the Euphrates in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas along the Turkish-Syrian border is one mooted option.

US forces would presumably have to leave all of Syria in such a scenario. However, even were Assad to accept such an agreement – and he has shown himself far from compliant to Russian requests in the past – his long-term commitment to it would remain questionable.

The PYD, being Kurdish nationalists, pose an ideological threat that Assad will not allow to thrive in northern Syria.

The Syrian government will most likely seek to undermine Kurdish autonomy, either through political machinations or violent re-conquest (possibly with Turkish acquiescence), once the PYD's external backers have all left.

Finally, alongside the violence coming from within Syria is that from the outside. IS's caliphate may have been defeated but its followers, both old and new, remain in Iraq and Syria and could yet set off low-level attacks and possibly even a renewed campaign.

Turkey remains sceptical of the PYD's presence, being affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK, along its border, and could yet move against outlying redoubts such as Afrin in Syria's north.

Similarly Israel fears the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the war and has already stepped up its attacks against military convoys in 2017. The long-awaited next round of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict may this time be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Assad therefore may have reasons to be cheerful, having survived the civil war launched to topple him. Whatever happens in Sochi this month, the Syrian dictator looks likely to remain as president. Yet the suffering for Syrians is far from over, and the conflict will evolve and continue in 2018 and possibly beyond.

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.

- Christopher Phillips is reader in international relations at Queen Mary, University of London and associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. He is author of The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East, a new updated paperback edition of which is available from Yale University Press in February 2018.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish soldiers during a demonstration in support of the Turkish army's Idlib operation on the Turkey-Syria border near Reyhanli, Hatay, October 2017 (AFP)

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The Ghost Plane of Faya-Largeau

What did the French shoot down over Chad in July 1988?

January 9, 2018 Arnaud Delalande

After years of conflict, on Sept. 10, 1987, Chad and Libya agreed to a ceasefire the next day at noon. However, Libyan air patrols continued. Indeed, Muammar Gaddafi seemed to believe any military action short of an actual attack was acceptable.

Not coincidentally, in October the United States handed over the first Stinger missiles to the armed forces of Chad. On Oct. 8, the Chadians shot down a Libyan Su-22 and a MiG-23.

In March 1988, French forces in Chad were on alert. Intelligence had warned of significant troop movements in southern Libya. France added defenses to air bases at Timou, Tanoua and Maaten-es-Sara to make them less vulnerable to Chadian raids.

But the Libyans didn’t attack.

In early July 1988, French troops were again on alert. Between July 7 to 9, the Chadian and Libyan foreign ministers met in Libreville, Gabon. The French feared the Libyans would launch an offensive during the meeting.

At the French base in Faya-Largeau, air-defense was the responsibility of the 35th Airborne Artillery Regiment. The regiment had three Stinger teams arranged in three positions around a local hill called the Rock of Mao. To separate friend from foe, friendly aircraft were required to arrive at a certain altitude while facing the rock and turn on their landing lights.

On July 7 and 8, the Libyan air force flew a series of reconnaissance sorties — probably with Mirage 5DRs and MiG-25Rs — over Bardai, Ounianga Kebir and … Faya Largeau.

Around eight o’clock at night on July 7, an unidentified transport plane approached Faya Largeau at an altitude of about 400 or 500 meters. It made a pass without respecting the identification criteria, with its rear cargo door open and streaming some kind of vapor.

The French sounded a chemical alert and troops donned masks and protective clothing. Gunners received permission to open fire. During its second pass, the aircraft – by then identified as a C-130 – switched on its headlights. When it was around four kilometers away, all three missile teams fired their Stingers.

The first Stinger developed a technical problem, the second self-destructed after reaching the end of its trajectory — and the third hit the target and detonated.

It was dark. The area where the aircraft should have crashed was heavily mined and inaccessible. The next morning a French Atlantic patrol plane circled the area for 15 minutes and then disappeared.

French commanders abruptly pulled some of the Stinger crews from duty and replaced them with fresh personnel, all without anyone ever confirming what exactly they had shot down.

It remains a mystery what the regiment shot down that night. One possibility is that it was a Libyan C-130H. At least as likely is the prospect that it was a friendly transport – perhaps one of the Lockheed L-100s — civilian C-130s — known to have been chartered by various U.S. intelligence agencies for their own purposes.

Five days later, another plane flew over Faya-Largeau under similar conditions, but this time without the rear cargo door open. No one opened fire.

According to Ahmad Allam-Mi, Chadian ambassador to France between 1982 and 1990, the French had informed the Chadians of the overflight at Faya Largeau by an aircraft that was “probably” Libyan — and that other overflights had also taken place that same night over Bardai and Ounianga Kebir.

But Libyan chief negotiator El Houdeiri vehemently protested, saying that his country was not involved in these flights. Instead, the Libyans told the Chadians that unspecified “countries opposed to a peace accord” had organized the flights in the hope of derailing the ongoing talks.

We may never know the truth.

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In 1986, French Troops in Chad Faced Mysterious Attackers

Who were the ghosts of Moussoro?

January 4, 2018 Arnaud Delalande

On its arrival in Chad as part of Operation Épervier, France’s intervention in the Chad-Libya war, the French military set up a radar center in the town of Moussoro, north of the capital N’Djamena starting in mid-February 1986.

The radar would become the apparent target of a mysterious raiding force … and the object of a determined French defense.

The 120-mile range SNERI Centaure radar was operated by the air force and protected by infantry from the 2e REI marine infantry regiment plus a Stinger surface-to-air missile team from the 1e REI.

“Four or five days after my arrival, our protection was taken over by the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Foreign Legion,” recalls Sgt. Thierry Bourdil, who arrived there on May 10, 1986.

“We were all very busy because of constant flights by C.160s, which were delivering all the arms for the 2e REI. We had to guide them in order to ascertain a safe landing and a quick turn-around and take-off. Almost all aircraft of the six planned had landed, the last being down in Bangui. It contained all the weapons of the 2e REI!”

A few days later, while the sixth C.160 was still broken down in Bangui, the radar controller called in Bourdil and another colleague. For several hours he had noticed very slow plots northeast of Moussoro converging on the same place.

The Centaur radar was theoretically capable of detecting vehicles, but nonetheless the operator remained perplexed. The signals grew stronger. And new signals appeared from the direction of Niger to the northwest. There were 80 targets, in all.

By overlaying the radar video on a wall map, the radar crew saw a clear correlation. The radar tracks were converging on a town called Salal, around 60 miles away. Apparently Salal was the staging point for an attack on the radar.

“The priority for both our officers was thus quickly carried out — a plan to protect the site with the means at hand,” Bourdil says. The French troops dug foxholes, strung barbed wire, laid mines and prepared air-defense guns — including a cannon-armed Gepard air-defense vehicle — for ground-to-ground action.

French headquarters at N’Djamena couldn’t provide any support, because at the time French aircraft did not have the ability to safely fly at night. The radar team was on its own. By midnight all 150 French defenders were in their vehicles and foxholes, ready to fight. “We had noted 80 vehicles loaded with six people [each] and therefore expected a force of over 500 people,” Bourdil says.

Around 1:00 A.M., one of the controllers opened the door of the radar shelter and announced the column of vehicles was leaving the assembly point and heading toward Moussoro. Ninety minutes later, headlights appeared in the distance.

The apparent attackers split into two groups. One headed into the town. The other bore down on the radar center. But instead of attacking, the vehicles swept right past and headed west. The French troops watched dumbfounded as the would-be assailants trundled off toward N’Djamena. The Gepard gave chase.

At 3:30 A.M., the defenders climbed out of their foxholes and lit cigarettes. At 4:00 A.M., the Gepard crew returned with a roll of toilet paper on which they had written license-plate numbers, the makes of the vehicles and a count of their occupants. In their hurry, the Gepard operators had forgotten to take normal paper with them.

As the sun began to illuminate the horizon, a noise tore the sky above the camp. A Mirage F1CR reconnaissance fighter flew overhead. Moments later, a Breguet Atlantic spy called in via radio. The Atlantic crew searched around the village of Salal … and found nothing. “There was no sign on the tracks,” Bourdil explains. “As if we had seen ghosts.”

By late morning, a C.160 flew senior officers to the radar center for a debriefing. A week later, the radar team got a new defense plan. The last C.160 finally arrived from Bangui carrying the marines’ remaining weapons.

“We never knew what happened to the vehicles because they never arrived in N’Djamena,” Bourdil concludes. “Friends or dissidents? This question remains and will remain forever unanswered.”

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Why Iraq’s Assyrians took up Arms

Posted on January 5, 2018

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.

Whether intentional or not, the Middle East has spent over a millennium Arabizing and Islamizing its peoples. Few know the consequences of this phenomenon better than the Assyrians of Iraq, who have had to contend with Arab nationalists and Islamists since the Rashidun Caliphate overran Mesopotamia, known to Arabs as “the Land of Two Rivers”. In response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS), thousands of Assyrians have thought to arm themselves in self-defense. While they today point their guns at jihadis, enemies whom Iraqis and Westerners too consider terrorists, the Assyrians could tomorrow use their weapons to uphold the sovereignty that generations of Iraqis have denied them.

Militias have thrived across the country since the Iraq War, but Assyrian militias have evolved only in the last few years. One of the first, Dwekh Nawsha, appeared in late 2014 to defend a northern village against IS. Composed of seventy volunteers supported by Iraqi Kurdistan, Dwekh Nawsha helped the Kurds expel the militants from part of the Assyrians’ historical homeland (Associated Press, “Christians Reclaim Iraq Village from ISIS“, CBS News, November 13, 2014). Small in comparison to its Kurdish and Shia counterparts, whose fighters numbered in the tens of thousands, the Assyrian militia nonetheless saw IS’s expansion as an existential threat: whereas the Kurds and Shias kept most of their territory, the Assyrians lost much of theirs. Dwekh Nawsha soon became an international cause célèbre, attracting volunteers from as far as North America (Rebecca Collard, “Meet the Americans Who Have Joined an Iraqi Militia to Fight ISIS“, Time, May 27, 2015). Competitors such as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units benefitted from Dwekh Nawsha’s fame (Steven Nelson, “Iraqi Christians Form Anti-ISIS Militia, and You Can Legally Chip in“, US News and World Report, February 6, 2015). The fortitude and popularity of the Assyrian militiamen, however, belied how much they had lost and suffered over the preceding centuries and decades. The Assyrians, like other Middle Eastern Christians, were fighting not to win but to survive.

Preceding Muslims by millennia, Assyrians feel proud of their history. They take their name from Assyria and trace their heritage as far back as Babylon and the Code of Hammurabi; Iraq itself reflects this history in Babil Governorate, an administrative division just south of Baghdad (Mordechai Nisan, “Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression“, 2nd ed., Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2002, p. 181). The Assyrians share some elements of their religion and terminology with their Muslim neighbors. Middle Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims describe God — the same god to them all — with similar superlatives (Bernard Lewis, “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East“, New York: Schocken Books, 1998, p. 25). The caliphates, though, threatened the Assyrians as the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires never had. Unlike Christianity and Zoroastrianism, Islam forced the Assyrians to accept second-class citizenship or convert; Byzantium and Persia, on the other hand, had more less allowed them to keep to themselves. Facing pressure from Shias to the east and Sunnis to the north and south, Assyrians took refuge in the remote mountains between Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Tigris (Nisan, p. 183). They settled in Nineveh, a historical region where tens of thousands of Assyrians lived before IS’s Iraqi conquests. The now-minority religion began a long history of learning to avoid or resist the danger presented by the majority, continuing to this day.

After the Sykes–Picot Agreement partitioned the Middle East between several states dominated by Arabs and Muslims, the Assyrians found themselves in Iraq. In some ways, the new country might have helped Assyrians define a national identity that they had lacked under the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates: Middle Eastern countries’ adoption of conscription brought all their citizens, including Christians, closer to the state, allowing Assyrians to acquire nominal equality absent from the Islamic states of the Middle Ages (Lewis, p. 94). Even so, Arab nationalists such as Saddam Hussein saw and targeted Christians as outliers. In keeping with the traditions of a one-party state, Ba’athist Iraq denied the Assyrians rights and tried to Arabize them (Nisan, p. 190). Even the Iran–Iraq War, which might have united all Iraqis against Iran regardless of ethnicity or religion, only helped Hussein reinforce Iraq’s Arab, Islamic identity in the face of his Persian enemies (William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, “A History of the Modern Middle East“, 6th ed., Boulder: Westview Press, 2016, p. 444). The American invasion, meant to establish democracy and equality in Iraq, fared little better. Iraq’s democratic but impotent postwar government promoted implied sectarianism, favoring Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians at the expense of Christian ones (Cleveland and Bunton, p 527). The Iraqi Security Forces, once effective and powerful under Hussein, came to depend on the Americans to function at the most basic level. The Assyrians, meanwhile, have no one on whom to rely.

The behavior of this minority religion in the Iraqi Civil War contrasts with the experiences of their counterparts in Lebanon and Syria. In the 1990s, the Christian militias of the Lebanese Civil War alternated between cooperating with Israel and Syria, two foes that sought to transform Lebanon into a puppet state; now that Israel and Syria have retreated from Lebanon, Hezbollah still counts many Christian politicians as its allies. During the Syrian Civil War, Christians have aligned themselves with a government itself run by a minority, the Alawis. In Lebanon, minority religions could take advantage of a proxy war. In Syria, they are making common cause with a dominant minority. Iraq offers neither. Instead, the Assyrians have turned to the Kurds and the Shias, who experienced their own massacres at the hands of Hussein. The Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s military, oversees several Assyrian militias (Adam Lucente, “Iraqi Christian Militia Draws Foreign Fighters“, Al-Monitor, July 24, 2015). The Imam Ali Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, sponsors at least one (Samuel Smith, “Sending Weapons to ‘Christian Militias’ in ISIS War in Iraq Is ‘Bad Idea’, Chaldean Patriarch War“, The Christian Post, May 25, 2016). Hussein saw the Kurds and Shias, like the Assyrians, as non-Arab, non-Sunni enemies of Ba’athist Iraq. Whether sympathizing with the goals of the Kurds and Shias or not, the Assyrians realize that they need whatever allies they can get. Otherwise, they may find that Arab nationalists and Islamists have succeeded in running them out of Iraq.

Now that the Assyrians have soldiers and weapons at least, they can perhaps exercise more autonomy under the preoccupied politicians of Erbil than they ever enjoyed under the caliphal central governments of Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad, and Constantinople. In fact, self-defense may prove the Assyrians’ best chance of maintaining what little heritage and territory they have left. That strategy worked for the Christians of Lebanon and Syria. The international community will have to watch what it does for the Assyrians of Iraq, among the forgotten minorities of the Middle East.
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