Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed an accord to annex four more areas of Ukraine, after self-styled referendums condemned by Ukraine and the West as a sham.
So-called votes were held in Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, and in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south.
Vladimir Putin has delivered a major speech at the Kremlin.
A stage was set up in Moscow’s Red Square, with billboards proclaiming the four regions as part of Russia and a concert planned for the evening.
The event echoes Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which also followed a discredited referendum and was heralded by a Kremlin signing followed by a presidential victory speech in parliament. That initial annexation has never been recognized by the vast majority of the international community, and nor will this.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the “pseudo-referendums” were worthless and did not change reality.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine will be restored. And our reaction to recognition of the results by Russia will be very harsh.”
No independent monitoring of the Russian process took place and election officials were pictured going from door to door escorted by armed soldiers.
Separate agreements will be signed with the two Russian-backed separatist leaders from the east and the two Russian-appointed officials from the south.
As with Crimea, Russia’s two houses of parliament will formally ratify the annexation treaties next week. Vladimir Putin is expected to address to the upper house of parliament on October 4, three days before his 70th birthday.
The US has said it will impose sanctions on Russia because of the staged referendums, while EU member states are considering an eighth round of measures, including sanctions on anyone involved in the votes.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on September 29 that people in occupied regions of Ukraine had been taken from their homes and workplaces by threat and sometimes at gunpoint.
“This is the opposite of free and fair elections. And this is the opposite of peace, it is a dictated peace,” she said.
The exercise began across 15% of Ukraine on September 23 with only a few days’ notice. Russian state media argued that the use of armed guards was for security purposes, but it was clear that it had the added effect of intimidating residents.
Russia does not fully control any of the four regions it has decided to annex. Although most of Luhansk remains in Russian hands, Moscow only controls 60% of Donetsk.
Seven months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north, east and south, war is still raging on front lines in all four areas. The capital of the southern region of Zaporizhzhia is firmly under the control of Ukraine’s government, and a counter-offensive is under way in Kherson.
Although Russian-appointed officials have been calling for annexation for several months, Ukraine’s series of military successes in September appear to have forced the Kremlin’s hand.
The Ukrainian army has recaptured large swathes of the north-east and on September 29 said its forces were encircling Russian troops in the strategically important city of Lyman, in Donetsk.
Last week, Vladimir Putin announced a military call-up and threatened to use all means at his disposal, including nuclear weapons, to defend what he considered Russian land. By annexing occupied areas of Ukraine, he will be able to argue that Russian territory is coming under attack from Western weapons, in the hope that some governments may halt their military aid to Kyiv.
However, Ukraine’s foreign minister has warned the sham votes will not have any influence on the battlefield.
Vladimir Putin has admitted that mistakes have been made in his drive to mobilise hundreds of thousands of Russians to bolster his troops on the front lines. Some 2,400 protesters have been arrested in dozens of cities and there has been an exodus of Russian men streaming across the border.
Kazakhstan alone reported 98,000 arrivals by September 27, and there have been long queues on the border with Georgia. From September 30, Finland has announced it will significantly restrict Russians entering for tourism or for onward travel to other EU countries.
On the 63rd day of Ukraine’s defense against a full-scale Russian invasion, Moscow has decided to cut off gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria.
Hours after this decision, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president,warned that the Țera of Russian fossil fuel in Europe” is coming to an end.
Ursula von der Leyen said it showed Russia’s “unreliability” as a supplier.
Political leaders in Warsaw and Sofia had already said Russian energy giant Gazprom’s move amounted to “blackmail”.
However, the Kremlin said Russia had been forced into the action by the “unfriendly steps” of Western nations.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov added that Russia remains a reliable energy partner.
Gazprom’s cut-off follows Poland and Bulgaria’s refusal to pay for gas in Russian roubles – a demand made by President Vladimir Putin in March, which was designed to shore up the faltering currency battered by Western sanctions.
In a statement issued on April 27, Gazprom said it had “completely suspended gas supplies” to Poland and Bulgaria in line with the decree issued by President Putin.
Gazprom also warned the countries – which are transit states for Russian gas – that any unauthorized withdrawal of gas intended for other European nations would see supplies reduced by an equivalent amount.
Polish state gas company PGNiG confirmed that Gazprom’s supplies to the country had been halted and warned that it reserved “the right to seek compensation”.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said “appropriate legal steps” will be taken against Gazprom.
Russia was seeking to “foster divisions” between Western allies.
Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov said the country was reviewing all of its contracts with Gazprom, including for transit of Russian gas to Serbia and Hungary, emphasizing that “one-sided blackmail was not acceptable”.
Sofia, which relies on Gazprom for more than 90% of its gas supply, said overnight it had taken steps to find alternative sources but no restrictions on gas consumption were currently required for Bulgarians.
Ursula von der Leyen, speaking in Brussels, said Gazprom’s move was “unjustified and unacceptable,” but emphasized that the bloc was “prepared for this scenario”.
She also hit out against reports carried by the media outlet Bloomberg which alleged 10 European energy companies are preparing to make payments for Gazprom gas in roubles, and that four energy companies have done so already.
The EU leader said such moves would be “high risk” for the corporations and would constitute “a breach of our sanctions”.
“Our guidance here is very clear,” she said.
While the EU has been firm that it will not comply with Vladimir Putin’s demands that payments be made in roubles, Hungary has reached a workaround deal with Gazprom.
The countries will pay into a euro-denominated account with Gazprombank, a subsidiary of the energy giant, which in turn will deposit the amount in roubles.
Dmitry Peskov refused to say how many other countries have agreed to make payments in this way.
Ahead of Gazprom’s announcement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff accused Russia of “beginning the gas blackmail of Europe”.
Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma – the lower house of Russia’s parliament – praised Gazprom’s move and urged it to take similar action against other “unfriendly” countries.
Europe depends on Russia for more than a third of its gas needs and Gazprom holds a monopoly on pipeline supplies in Russia.
Russian warship Moskva that was damaged by an explosion on April 13 has sunk, Russia’s defence ministry has said.
According to a ministry message, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was being towed to port when “stormy seas” caused it to sink.
The 510-crew missile cruiser was a symbol of Russia’s military power, leading its naval assault on Ukraine.
Kyiv says its missiles hit the warship. Moscow has not reported any attack. It says the vessel sank after a fire.
The blaze caused the explosion of the warship’s ammunition, Russia says, adding that the entire crew were later evacuated to nearby Russian vessels in the Black Sea. It provided no further details.
After saying initially the warship was afloat, late on Thursday, April 14, Russian state media broke the news that the Moskva had been lost.
“While being towed… towards the destined port, the vessel lost its balance due to damage sustained in the hull as fire broke out after ammunition exploded. Given the choppy seas, the vessel sank,” state news agency Tass quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying.
Ukrainian military officials said they struck the Moskva with Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles – a weapon designed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the naval threat to Ukraine in the Black Sea grew.
A senior Ukrainian official said as many as 510 crew could have been on board the Moskva.
Originally built in the Soviet-era, the Moskva entered service in the early 1980s. The vessel was actually laid down in Ukraine’s southern city of Mykolaiv, which has been heavily bombed by Russia in recent days.
The guided missile cruiser was previously deployed by Moscow in the Syria conflict where it supplied Russian forces in the country with naval protection.
It reportedly had 16 Vulkan anti-ship missiles and an array of anti-submarine and mine-torpedo weapons.
If the Ukrainian attack is confirmed, the 12,490-tonne Moskva would be the biggest warship to be sunk by enemy action since World War Two.
It is the second major vessel Russia has lost since the start of its invasion. In March, the Saratov landing ship was destroyed by a Ukrainian attack in the harbour of Berdyansk, a Sea of Azov Ukrainian port seized by Russia.
US journalist Brent Renaud has been shot dead in the town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, police say.
The 50-year-old was a journalist and filmmaker who was working in the region for Time.
Kyiv’s police chief Andriy Nebytov said Brent Renaud had been targeted by Russian soldiers. Two other journalists were injured and taken to hospital.
It is the first reported death of a foreign journalist covering the war in Ukraine.
One of the injured journalists, Juan Arredondo, told an Italian reporter he had been with Brent Renaud when they came under fire.
Photographs are circulating online showing a press ID for Brent Renaud issued by the New York Times.
In a statement, the newspaper said it was “deeply saddened” to hear of Brent Renaud’s death but that he had not been working for the newspaper in Ukraine.
Brent Renaud last worked for the publication in 2015, the Times said, and the press ID he was wearing in Ukraine had been issued years ago.
Time editor-in-chief and CEO Edward Felsenthal and Ian Orefice, the president and chief operating officer of Time and Time Studios, said they were “devastated by the loss”.
“As an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, Brent tackled the toughest stories around the world often alongside his brother Craig Renaud,” the statement said.
Brent Renaud had reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. He won a Peabody Award for his work on a 2014 series on Chicago schools, Last Chance High.
He often worked alongside his brother, Craig, also a filmmaker. It is not known whether Craig also travelled to Ukraine.
Brent Renaud’s death comes less than two weeks after Ukrainian journalist Yevhenii Skaum, a camera operator for the Ukrainian television channel LIVE, was killed when a TV transmission tower in Kyiv was hit by shelling.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has described sanctions imposed by Western nations over his invasion of Ukraine as “akin to a declaration of war”.
“But thank God it has not come to that,” he added.
President Putin also warned that any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be seen as participation in the armed conflict.
He rejected suggestions that he would introduce a state of emergency or martial law in Russia.
Vladimir Putin made the remarks while speaking to a group of women flight attendants at an Aeroflot training centre near Moscow.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion 10 days ago, the West has imposed a raft of sanctions on Russia, including the freezing of President Putin’s foreign assets and the exclusion of a number of Russian banks from the Swift international payments system.
In addition, many multinational firms have ceased operations in Russia.
On March 5, Zara, Paypal and Samsung became the latest global brands to suspend trading there.
The economic measures have already caused the rouble to plunge in value and forced the Russian central bank to double interest rates.
In his latest comments, President Putin sought to justify the war in Ukraine, repeating his assertion that he was seeking to defend Russian speaking communities there through the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of the country.
Responding to Western defence analysts’ allegations that the Russian military campaign was going less well than expected, he said: “Our army will fulfil all the tasks. I don’t doubt that at all. Everything is going to plan.”
The Russian leader added that only professional soldiers were taking part in the hostilities and there were no conscripts involved, despite reports to the contrary.
He said efforts to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine would be considered by Russia to be a step into the military conflict and those responsible would be treated as enemy combatants.
“The current leadership needs to understand that if they continue doing what they are doing, they risk the future of Ukrainian statehood,” he added.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned NATO for ruling out the no-fly zone. However, Western leaders say introducing the measure would be an escalation.
Vladimir Putin also said he had no plans to declare martial law in Russia. adding that such a step would only be taken in “instances of external aggression, in defined areas of military activity”.
“But we don’t have such a situation and I hope we won’t have one,” he said.
There had been rumours that Vladimir Putin was planning to declare martial law, which is when normal civil law is suspended or the military takes control of government functions.
He said there were other special emergency states which could be used in the case of a “large-scale external threat”, but that he had no plans to introduce these either.
Meanwhile, diplomatic moves have continued on the sidelines of the conflict.
Israeli PM Naftali Bennett met Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 5 and had a three-hour discussion on the war.
Naftali Bennett then headed to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. As an Orthodox Jew, he broke Shabbat in order to travel, which is allowed under Jewish law if human life is at stake.
Although Israel is a key ally of the US, Naftali Bennett has tried to preserve a good relationship with Russia. Ukraine’s President Zelensky, who is Jewish, has called on Israel to mediate in the crisis.
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has met Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, telling him he was in awe of his courage in standing up to Russia.
The two men met on the Polish-Ukraine border. Dmytro Kuleba reiterated his desire and optimism for more military backing from NATO, including a no-fly zone.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the allies would stop Russia from “using its war chest,” by paralysing the assets of its central bank. They also agreed to freezing its transactions and prevent the central bank from liquidating its assets.
She added there would be a crackdown on so-called “golden passports” that “let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens of our countries and gain access to our financial systems”.
UK PM Boris Johnson said Britain had taken “decisive action”, tweeting: “We will keep working together to ensure Putin pays the price for his aggression.”
The measures were agreed by the US, UK, Europe and Canada.
It is the latest round of sanctions to hit Russia since it launched an invasion of Ukraine this week.
Removing banks from Swift is deemed to be a severe curb because almost all banks use the system.
As of Sunday, October 25, Ukraine will stop direct flights to Russia, as new sanctions initiated by Kiev come into effect.
Moscow first called Kiev’s ban on Russian airlines “madness”, then announced that it would mirror the move.
Ukraine now says flights will end at midnight on October 24, after last-minute crisis talks failed.
Up to 70,000 passengers a month will be affected.
The sanctions are intended to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting armed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The fact that they have been introduced now, when a ceasefire is finally holding on the ground, shows how bitter relations remain.
Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting itself in the foot with the move, pointing out that most passengers are Ukrainian travelling to work in Russia, visiting relatives or in transit.
Two-thirds of all passengers travel on Russian airlines.
Russia’s transport minister has estimated that the loss in ticket sales to both countries will run to around $110 million a year.
The ban is already angering passengers from both countries.
Last-minute talks to find a compromise are under way – so far to no avail – and the chances of success look slim in this climate.
As of October 25, passengers will be forced to take longer, more expensive routes via third countries, or to brace themselves for a 13-hour trip by train.
Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have agreed to begin to pull back heavy weapons from the frontline, Russian General Alexander Lentsov, who is involved in implementing the truce, has said.
Gen. Alexander Lentsov said the pro-Russian rebels had signed the orders to complete the withdrawal over the next two weeks, starting from Sunday.
It is not clear whether the move will be reciprocated by Ukraine.
This comes as Ukraine and the separatists exchanged 191 prisoners, a key part of the Minsk ceasefire deal.
It was the first step carried out successfully under the terms of the February 12 agreements signed in Minsk, brokered by France and Germany.
The exchange came as Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was considering “serious sanctions” against Russia following breaches of the truce, and that a decision would be made in the coming days.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said sanctions would not help solve Ukraine’s crisis.
Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians – as well as a number of European leaders – are expected to take part in a “dignity march” in the capital Kiev on February 22, remembering the victims of sniper fire during protests last February.
Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted last April Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the UN.
This followed Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.
Gen. Alexander Lentsov, a Russian member of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-operation (JCCC), said: “We have designated February 22 as <<D-Day>> as determined by the agreement from all sides. So from tomorrow [February 22] we will within the period of 14 days observe the agreement on the pullback of heavy weapons.”
He said the leaders of the self-proclaimed rebel Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics had already signed the orders.
“We hope for Kiev’s participation and help first and foremost,” the general added.
Petro Kanonik, a Ukrainian member of the JCCC, said Kiev had been informed of the rebel move, according to Ukraine’s Ukrainska Pravda website.
The pullout process had been due to start on February 17 and completed by March 3, but Gen. Alexander Lentsov said it would now take until March 7.
Ukraine and rebel forces accuse each other of multiple breaches of the truce, and there were reports of violations around Donetsk and the port city of Mariupol on February 21.
Yesterday, Ukraine’s military and the rebels completed the first exchange of prisoners after the ceasefire. A total of 139 Ukrainian soldiers were freed and 52 rebels.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted the news of the prisoner exchange, which took place near the front line town of Zholobok.
Some of the government soldiers were wounded and walking on crutches.
Petro Poroshenko originally said 140 soldiers would be freed, and Ukrainian officials said one more soldier would be released in the coming days.
Anti-Maidan protesters rally in Moscow to condemn the “coup” in neighboring Ukraine, a year after the downfall of its pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian state media heavily promoted the rally and march with the slogan “We won’t forget! We won’t forgive!”.
Ukraine’s protests ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
Russia has since annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and is accused of backing rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in eastern Ukraine with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation. Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.
Shelling could be heard on Saturday morning in the city of Donetsk, the rebels’ main stronghold, further fraying the ceasefire which was meant to begin nearly one week ago in eastern Ukraine.
Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted in April 2014 and some 1.5 million people have fled their homes, according to the UN.
The Moscow event is styled as an “anti-Maidan” march – a reference to Ukraine’s pro-EU protests that started on Kiev’s central Independence Square, widely known as the Maidan.
Groups of demonstrators gathered in central Moscow on Saturday under patriotic Russian banners.
One group of marchers in military fatigues could be seen with a placard which read “Maidan is an illness – we’re going to cure it!”
Another placard read “Maidan benefits the enemies of Russia!”
At least 10,000 people are expected to turn out with more than 100 public organizations mustering support, Russia’s NTV news channel reports.
The channel says it will air an interview with Viktor Yanukovych later in the day.
The anti-Yanukovych revolt was triggered by a sudden U-turn that ditched a wide-ranging pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Since Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, the new authorities in Ukraine have issued an arrest warrant for him over the “mass murder of peaceful citizens”.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia on February 20 of direct involvement in the sniper fire that killed dozens of protesters in Kiev on February 18-20 last year.
Petro Poroshenko was speaking just two days after his army retreated from the key town of Debaltseve, now in rebel hands.
Speaking at a commemorative gathering in Kiev, he said Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov had organized “groups of foreign snipers”. The president cited information he had received from Ukraine’s security services.
The Russian foreign ministry hit back at the claim, calling it “nonsense”.
The rebels took the strategic transport hub, despite the ceasefire signed on February 12, arguing that the truce did not apply to the flash-point town.
An intense rebel bombardment forced some 2,500 government troops to retreat from Debaltseve, and dozens of others surrendered.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a tough statement on February 20 warning that he would not allow any foreign state to gain the military advantage over Russia.
“No-one should have the illusion that they can gain military superiority over Russia, put any kind of pressure on it,” he said.
President Petro Poroshenko says the Ukrainian troops are making an “organized” withdrawal from the embattled town of Debaltseve.
Petro Poroshenko said 80% of Ukraine’s forces had left on Wednesday morning, February 18, with more to follow.
Fighting has raged over the transport hub, with pro-Russian rebels seizing control of most areas, despite a ceasefire deal.
Russia’s foreign minister said Ukrainian forces had been encircled and were forced to battle their way out.
“I’m reckoning that common sense will prevail,” said Sergei Lavrov as he urged the rebels to provide troops who surrendered with food and clothes.
Earlier, Vice-President Joe Biden accused Russia of violating the accord, agreed in Minsk last week.
Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the rebel attack in Debaltseve did not violate the ceasefire agreement, because the town was part of the rebel-held area at the time the peace deal was signed.
Eyewitnesses saw dozens of tanks and columns of weary Ukrainian troops retreating from Debaltseve on February 18.
“This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organized withdrawal from Debaltseve,” the Ukrainian president said in a statement before travelling to the frontline in the east.
“As of now we can say that 80% of our units have left,” he said.
“We are expecting another two columns [to leave].”
The withdrawal comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine’s troops in Debaltseve to surrender.
International observers monitoring the truce have been unable to enter the town.
It has become a key prize for rebels and government forces, as it sits on a strategic railway line linking rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
Most of its 25,000 population has been evacuated but about 7,000 civilians are still believed trapped by the fighting.
The ceasefire, which came into effect on February 15, has been broadly observed elsewhere.
Rebel leaders in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said on February 18 they had begun to withdraw heavy weaponry from the parts of the frontline where the ceasefire was holding.
The withdrawal was due to start no later than the second day after the truce came into effect and be completed within two weeks, creating buffer zones 30-85 miles wide.
NATO is holding an emergency meeting over eastern Ukraine crisis, as the West steps up its accusations of direct Russian involvement in the conflict.
On August 28, NATO released satellite images it said showed Russian forces inside Ukraine and said more than 1,000 troops were operating there.
Russia denies sending troops to eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian rebels have gained ground recently. Nearly 2,600 people have been killed since April, the UN says.
Heavy fighting is continuing near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Rebel forces are trying to capture the city but Ukrainian government troops are digging in.
On August 28, the separatists seized the nearby town of Novoazovsk.
The advance has raised fears that the Kremlin might seek to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea – a territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.
Rebels are also reported to have surrounded government soldiers in several places further north, near the city of Donetsk.
Ukraine forces near the town of Ilovaysk say they are cut off and have been urgently asking for supplies and reinforcements.
NATO said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine
Overnight, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the rebels to open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow encircled Ukrainian troops to leave without unnecessary casualties, though he did not specify the location.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko later told Russian TV that his fighters had agreed to the request, on condition that the Ukrainians hand over heavy weapons and ammunition.
At least 2,593 people had been killed in the conflict between mid-April and August 27, the UN said in its latest report.
Human rights violations like abduction and torture were “committed primarily by the armed groups”, referring to the rebels, it said.
Separately, Human Rights Watch said in a report that the rebels were subjecting civilians to torture, degrading treatment and forced labor.
The reports of Russian troops fighting with rebels prompted renewed Western criticism of Moscow’s role in the conflict.
President Barack Obama blamed Russia for the escalation but stopped short of saying its troops had invaded Ukraine.
“There is no doubt that this is not a home-grown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine,” he said.
“The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia.”
Barack Obama is due to discuss the crisis with European leaders at a NATO summit in the UK next week.
NATO released satellite images it said showed columns of Russian armed forces inside Ukrainian territory.
NATO Brigadier General Niko Tak said more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine, both supporting the separatists and fighting on their side.
At Thursday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Samantha Power said Russia had “outright lied” about its role.
Her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin did not respond directly to Western accusations, but said: “There are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No-one is hiding that.”
He hit out at the Ukrainian government, accusing it of “waging war against its own people”.
Vitaly Churkin also questioned the presence of Western advisers in Ukraine and asked where Ukrainian troops were getting their weapons from.
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