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Archive for the ‘Land of the White Cloud’ Category

New Zealand leader carries on with TV interview during quake

May 25, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern barely skipped a beat when an earthquake struck during a live television interview Monday morning. She interrupted Newshub host Ryan Bridge to tell him what was happening at the parliament complex in the capital, Wellington.

“We’re just having a bit of an earthquake here Ryan, quite a decent shake here,” she said, looking up and around the room. “But, um, if you see things moving behind me.” New Zealand sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is sometimes called the Shaky Isles for its frequent quakes.

Monday’s magnitude 5.6 quake struck in the ocean about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Wellington, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quake hit just before 8 a.m. and was felt by thousands of New Zealanders who were getting ready to start their work weeks. It was strong enough to rattle food from shelves and stop train services.

But there were no reports of major damage or injuries. Ardern continued on with her interview, telling the host the shaking had stopped. “We’re fine Ryan,” she said. “I’m not under any hanging lights, I look like I’m in a structurally sound place.”

Ardern, who has been leading the country’s health and economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, said later that the thought going through her head when the quake struck was: “Are you serious?” A 2011 quake in the city of Christchurch killed 185 people and destroyed much of the downtown area. The city is continuing to rebuild.

New Zealand barber snips away at midnight as nation reopens

May 13, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The raggedy hairstyles and scruffy beards have been there for all to see on video calls, so barber Conrad Fitz-Gerald decided to reopen his shop at midnight Wednesday — the moment New Zealand dropped most of its lockdown restrictions as the nation prepared itself for a new normal.

Malls, retail stores and restaurants are all reopening Thursday in the South Pacific nation of 5 million, and many people are returning to their workplaces. But most gatherings will be limited to 10 people and social distancing guidelines will remain in place.

The reopening reflects the success New Zealand has experienced in its bold goal of eliminating the virus. The country reported no new cases of the virus on Tuesday and Wednesday. More than 1,400 of the nearly 1,500 people who contracted COVID-19 have recovered, while 21 have died.

Fitz-Gerald said he’d had about 50 inquiries for midnight haircuts, but limited the initial customers to a dozen, starting with his 18-year-old son. He planned to then go home and return at 6 a.m. for another round of cuts.

“People are saying their hair is out-of-control, they can’t handle it anymore,” he said. “Lots of parents of teenage kids have been calling up, too, thinking a haircut at midnight would be a great novelty. Unfortunately, we are full up.”

Fitz-Gerald said he was trying to make sure the virus couldn’t spread in his shop, Cathedral Junction Barbers in Christchurch. He said he’d made his own “supercharged” hand sanitizer from isopropyl alcohol and also had masks available for himself and his customers on request.

Health authorities in New Zealand have recommended that barbers wear masks but haven’t made it mandatory. Most New Zealand schools will reopen Monday but bars won’t reopen until May 21, a decision that was prompted in part by the experience in South Korea, which has seen a spike in coronavirus cases linked to nightclubs in Seoul.

The nation’s reopening coincides with the release of the government’s annual budget on Thursday afternoon. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Southern Hemisphere nation faces the most challenging economic conditions since the Great Depression.

“New Zealand is about to enter a very tough winter,” she said. “But every winter eventually is followed by spring, and if we make the right choices we can get New Zealanders back to work and our economy moving quickly again.”

Virus tamed in New Zealand, while Brazil emerges as hot spot

April 28, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Surfers in New Zealand hit the waves at dawn, builders returned to construction sites and baristas fired up their espresso machines as the nation eased a strict lockdown Tuesday amid hopeful signs the coronavirus has been all but vanquished Down Under — at least for now.

But elsewhere, Brazil was emerging as a potential new hot spot for infections, and fresh doubts were raised over whether Japan would be able to host the already postponed Olympic Games next year. Europe and some U.S. states were also continuing to gradually ease limits on movement and commerce as they tried to restart their economies.

But in a reminder of the virus’s increasing toll, President Donald Trump said the numbers of deaths could reach 70,000 in the U.S., after putting the number at 60,000 several times earlier this month.

With the number of new cases waning, New Zealand’s government loosened its lockdown, which for more than a month had shuttered schools and most businesses, and only allowed people to leave their homes for essential work, to get groceries or to exercise.

Most students will continue studying from home and workers are still required to work from home if they can, while everyone is required to maintain social distancing. But restaurants can now reopen for takeaway orders, construction can restart, and golfers and surfers can play.

New Zealand reported just three new infections on Tuesday and the country’s health authorities said they’re winning the battle against the virus. Nevertheless they cautioned people not to get complacent and to maintain social distancing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said people had done an incredible job to break the chain of transmission, but cautioned they needed to remain vigilant. Quoting a microbiologist, Ardern said “there may still be some smoldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again, if we give them the chance.”

In Australia, authorities reopened Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday and hundreds returned to the water as soon as the restrictions were lifted. People can only use the beach during daylight hours, cannot linger on the sand and are counted to ensure social distancing.

In Japan, a top medical expert said he thinks it will be difficult to hold the Olympics in 2021 without an effective coronavirus vaccine. “I hope vaccines and drugs will be developed as soon as possible,” said Yoshitake Yokokura, the president of the Japan Medical Association.

Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games until July next year due to the pandemic. Japan is under a monthlong state of emergency amid a rapid increase of infections throughout the country, where hospitals are overburdened.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has insisted COVID-19 is just a “little flu” and that there is no need for the type of restrictions that have slowed the infection’s spread in Europe and the U.S. Brazil has reported 4,600 deaths and 67,000 confirmed infections. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people without severe symptoms who haven’t sought hospital care.

Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or are too overwhelmed to take any more patients. There are also signs that a growing number of victims are now dying at home. Brazil is Latin America’s biggest country, with 211 million people.

“We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious,” said Paulo Brandão, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo. Bolsonaro has disputed the seriousness of the coronavirus and said people need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown. But most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and pushed people to stay at home.

In other developments, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work after a bout with the virus and warned strongly against easing his own country’s lockdown too soon: “I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life.”

And New York canceled its Democratic presidential primary, set for June 23, since Bernie Sanders has already conceded the nomination to Joe Biden. The state reported 337 deaths for the lowest daily count this month, down from nearly 800 almost three weeks ago.

The number of confirmed infections in the U.S. has risen to nearly 1 million, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, although the true number is likely much higher because not everybody who contracts the virus is tested.

Worldwide, the death toll topped 210,000. The number of dead in the U.S. surpassed 56,000. Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each.

Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

New Zealand embraces teddies to help make lockdown bear-able

April 02, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Some are perched in trees. Some are hanging upside down. Some are baking scones. Teddy bears are popping up in the unlikeliest of places as New Zealanders embrace an international movement in which people are placing the stuffed animals in their windows during coronavirus lockdowns to brighten the mood and give children a game to play by spotting the bears in their neighborhoods.

The inspiration comes from the children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. New Zealand last week began a four-week lockdown but people are still allowed outside to exercise if they keep a safe distance from each other. In other words, bear-spotting is okay.

Mother-of-two and part-time school administrator Deb Hoffman started the Facebook page “We’re Not Scared – NZ Bear Hunt” and also set up a website where more than 120,000 people have now put pins on an online map to show the location of their bears. “We’re not scared” is a repeated line in the book, which features a family overcoming a number of obstacles in their search for a bear.

Hoffman said she’s been taken aback by the huge response. She said some people are creating personalities for their bears by having them do a different activity each day. Hoffman said one woman wrote that the teddy bears were the only thing getting her through the isolation, after she had already been housebound for six weeks following surgery before the lockdown began.

“It’s a way for people to feel connected, and to contribute,” Hoffman said. “It’s really important at a time like this.” Hoffman said she’s getting some help to enhance her website so that people will soon be able to interact with the bears by giving them an emotion.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has even joined in, saying people should keep an eye on her window because they might spot a bear. In a grimly ironic twist, the author of the book is hospitalized with symptoms similar to COVID-19.

Rosen’s family said Tuesday that the 73-year-old writer was “poorly” but improving, having previously spent a night in intensive care. Rosen’s wife Emma-Louise Williams tweeted: “He has been able to eat today & will be getting a more comfortable oxygen mask soon. All good signs.”

She did not say whether Rosen had been diagnosed with the new coronavirus. In recent weeks, Rosen has described his illness on Twitter, wondering whether symptoms including fatigue and fever meant he had COVID-19 or a “heavy flu.”

New Zealand mosque gunman pleads guilty to murder, terrorism

March 26, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The man who committed the worst atrocity in New Zealand’s modern history when he slaughtered 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques unexpectedly pleaded guilty to all charges Thursday.

The attacks targeting people praying at the mosques a year ago shocked the nation and prompted new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons. It also prompted global changes to social media protocols after the gunman livestreamed his attack on Facebook, where it was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

The sudden turn in the case took survivors and relatives by surprise, and brought relief to people across New Zealand. Many had feared Australian white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant would try to use his trial as a platform to promote his views. He’d outlined those views in a 74-page manifesto he published online shortly before the attacks.

Tarrant, 29, pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism at the Christchurch High Court. He had previously pleaded not guilty to all charges and his trial had been scheduled to start in June.

Tarrant is the first person to be found guilty of terrorism in New Zealand under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. The change in plea came less than two weeks after New Zealanders commemorated those who died on the anniversary of the March 15, 2019, attacks.

“Honestly, I’m still trying to process what just happened,” said Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hussein was killed in the attack on the Al Noor mosque. “I feel conflicted.” She said that on the one hand, she had wanted to find out more details about what happened at the trial but on the other hand was feeling relieved about not having to face the trauma of sitting through it.

Temel Atacocugu, who survived being shot nine times during the attack at Al Noor, said he was surprised by the turn of events and hoped the judge would set an example at the sentencing by imposing the harshest punishment in the country’s history and helping ensure nothing like it would happen again.

“I’m happy that he has accepted that he is guilty,” Atacocugu said. ,Judge Cameron Mander has not yet set a sentencing date. Tarrant faces life imprisonment, with the judge having some discretion in deciding the minimum number of years Tarrant must serve before becoming eligible for parole.

The change in plea came at a hastily arranged court hearing at a time that New Zealand was beginning a four-week lockdown to try and combat the new coronavirus. The lockdown meant Tarrant appeared in the court via video link from his jail cell in Auckland and only a handful of people were allowed inside the courtroom, including the imams from the two mosques that were attacked.

Mander said it was unfortunate the lockdown prevented victims and family members from being able to attend the hearing but the imams were helping to represent them. He said he wanted to quickly move ahead with the hearing, especially with the COVID-19 response threatening delays to the court schedule.

Tarrant, who was wearing a gray prison sweater, showed little emotion as he pleaded guilty. He didn’t indicate why he had changed his pleas, and his lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was praised around the world for her empathetic response to the Muslim community after the attacks, said it was “deeply disappointing” the victims didn’t get to attend the hearing.

But she said there was “a certain sense of relief that the whole nation, but particularly our Muslim community, are being spared from a trial that could have otherwise acted as a platform.” Tarrant moved to New Zealand in 2017 and kept a low profile in the university city of Dunedin. He frequented a gym, practiced shooting at a rifle club range and built up an arsenal of weapons. He didn’t appear to be employed, and said in some online posts that he’d inherited a significant amount of money when his father died.

Tarrant appeared to have a fascination with religious conflicts in Europe and the Balkans, and visited a number of sites in Eastern Europe in the years before he committed the massacre. After his attack at the second mosque, Tarrant was driving, possibly to carry out a shooting at a third mosque, when two police officers rammed his car off the road, dragged him out and arrested him.

1 year later, New Zealand mosque attacks alter many lives

March 13, 2020

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Fifty-one people were killed and dozens more injured when a lone gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch last year. New Zealanders will commemorate those who died on the anniversary of the mass killing Sunday. Three people whose lives were forever altered that day say it has prompted changes in their career aspirations, living situations and in the way that others perceive them.

Aya Al-Umari

Aya’s older brother Hussein, 35, was killed in the attack at the Al Noor mosque

When she first heard there had been a shooting at the mosque, Aya Al-Umari rushed to her brother’s house and then to the Christchurch Hospital, hoping to find out something, anything, about him. She was confronted with an overwhelming scene. Children were crying. Adults were covered with blood. Nothing was comprehensible. She spotted a policewoman, who calmed her down, told her to go home and promised to update her hourly.

The kindness of that officer and other officers has inspired Al-Umari to consider a career change. Currently a credit analyst at a bank, she hopes to join the police force and work on financial crimes.

“I think, going through this, it really shifts your perspective in life. And by life, it’s everything from A to Z,” she says. “So from family time, going about your day, to career. All of these have shifted.”

These days, she is learning self-defense techniques through martial arts courses and says no matter how busy she finds herself, she always makes sure to spend time with her parents. And she never stops thinking about Hussein, who was her only sibling.

She carries a photo of the two of them and takes selfies of it when she visits different places around the world, like when she completed the hajj pilgrimage in August. She was one of 200 survivors and relatives from the Christchurch attacks who traveled to Saudi Arabia as guests of King Salman.

“Every day I feel like Hussein is with me,” she says. “Any decisions that I make, I just think about, OK, what would Hussein do in this situation?” Every time that I visit him in the cemetery, he’s definitely there.”

Al-Umari, 34, has also been reflecting on the casual racism she experienced in New Zealand growing up. She first noticed it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. “I remember at school I would feel like I was the one being blamed for what’s happened,” she says. “The Muslims were being tainted by one brush.”

She was later teased by her friends, called names. Now she thinks that’s how it all starts — a little joke, a comment that doesn’t get challenged. “I feel I was also responsible in that I did not stand up for myself,” she says. “I would laugh it off, whereas the right thing to do would have been like, ‘It’s not funny. How would you feel if I said the same things to you?’”

Al-Umari is steeling herself for the June trial of the man accused of the shooting, 29-year-old Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant. He has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder and faces life imprisonment if found guilty.

Al-Umari remembers the first time she saw him in court, where he appeared via video-link from his maximum-security jail cell. “It felt like my organs had just dropped to the floor,” she says. She’s been trying to heal her spirit and keep the memory of Hussein alive by writing about her experiences online, by overcoming prejudice with compassion.

“Words can be powerful. Words can be destructive,” she says. “But they can also be very restorative as well.”

Len Peneha

Len lived next door to the Al Noor mosque and helped some worshipers escape

On March 15 last year, Len Peneha had driven home to pick up his daughter Jasmine when he noticed a man maneuvering a car at the end of their long driveway and then carry something into the mosque.

“We started hearing these noises. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” he says. He wondered if it was construction scaffolding falling over. But then people began running everywhere, and Peneha figured out what was happening. He and his daughter ran inside. Jasmine called the police and Peneha came back out and helped people climb over the mosque’s back fence and hide in his apartment as the shooter continued his massacre.

The images from that day will never leave Peneha, 54. He saw the gunman shoot a woman at point-blank range at the end of the driveway, and then drive over her body. After the gunman left, Peneha went to the mosque to help and saw bodies strewn in the foyer.

“I struggled sleeping for months after that. My brain was still on high alert,” he says. At night he would hear the slightest noise from down the street or the words from a conversation in another building. Every time he drove down his driveway he would see the image of the woman’s body lying across it. He had frequent panic attacks and sought counseling.

“The sadness that it brought affected me quite a lot. And it still does today,” he says. After months of anxiety, Peneha decided he needed to move away from the area, and he found a new apartment. Shifting has helped calm his mind, he says, although he still has days when he feels down and moments when he struggles.

Three of the people he helped escape that day have since come back to say thanks. They credit Peneha with saving their lives. “To be honest, in my mind, they saved themselves first, by actually getting out of there alive,” Peneha says. “I helped them climb over the fence, and I sheltered them and stopped them from doing anything stupid to get themselves killed. And maybe, in that respect, I did help save their lives.”

Peneha says the gunman seems to think he’s superior to other people, and that’s not the way the world should work. Peneha admires the sentiments from some the survivors of the Al Noor shooting, including Farid Ahmed, who has said he forgives the attacker.

“I can’t forgive him, like Farid has and the Muslim community has,” Peneha says. “I don’t find I have any compassion for him at all. What he did was abhorrent. Callous.”

Adib Khanafer

Adib, a vascular surgeon, helped save the life of a 4-year-old girl who was shot at the Al Noor mosque

Adib Khanafer didn’t know anything about the mosque attacks when he was urgently called to the operating theater at the Christchurch Hospital to work on 4-year-old Alen Alsati. “They said there’s a major bleed, so I scrubbed in,” he says. “It was very emotional at the beginning to see such horrific injuries. I did what I’m best at doing: repairing vessels.”

The girl spent weeks at an Auckland children’s hospital recovering. About seven months after the attacks, Khanafer was invited by the family to join them for an authentic Palestinian dinner. He says Alen was vibrant and was even teasing his own daughter.

“I don’t have any concern about Alen. I think she’s going to be a good, tough girl,” he says. “I told her that you need to be a surgeon, and she said, ‘No, I want to be a policewoman.’ And I said ‘OK, that’s disappointing, but we’ll work on it, we’ll work on it.’”

He says Alen has started school and he’s confident she’ll fully recover. Khanafer, 52, says he’s noticed a change in how people treat him and his wife, who are both Muslim. Before the attacks, he says, many people in Christchurch didn’t know much about Islam or the Muslim culture and were sometimes guarded around the couple. He says many people have since taken the time to read and inform themselves, and he’s noticed some big changes.

“People now understand there’s a different culture, there’s a different religion, there’s a different behavior,” he says. “So definitely, we’ve seen more acceptance. Particularly to people like my wife, who wears the Islamic hijab.”

He says bullet wounds can do serious damage to soft tissue and nerves, and some of the dozens who were injured in the attacks will take a long time to heal. Some may never be able to play sports with their kids or return to the way they were. But he says there are also stories of remarkable recoveries.

“The human body is a pretty good machine,” he says. “Only time will tell.”

Increased activity on New Zealand volcano stymies recovery

December 11, 2019

WHAKATANE, New Zealand (AP) — Experts said geothermal activity on a New Zealand volcanic island increased significantly on Wednesday, dealing a blow to relatives waiting for crews to recover the bodies that remain there following a deadly eruption two days earlier.

Volcanic tremors rose in the morning, accompanied by an increase in the amount of steam and mud being released at White Island, the GeoNet seismic monitoring agency said. “We interpret these signals as evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano,” the agency said. “The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur.”

Six deaths were confirmed after Monday’s eruption. Five people died at the time of the blast or soon after, while a sixth person died Tuesday night at an Auckland hospital. Another eight people are believed to have died, with their bodies remaining on the ash-covered island for now. And 30 people remain hospitalized, including 25 in critical condition. Many of the injured suffered severe burns.

Bruce Bird, an acting assistant police commissioner, said they were monitoring the situation hour by hour. “Safety for our staff is a huge priority for us,” Bird said. “And we’ve got to get this right.”

Bird said they had deployed a drone over the island to measure gas levels after strong winds had thwarted those attempts on Tuesday. But helicopter pilot Mark Law said the delay was hard to understand and that if he was making the decision, he would leave immediately.

“It would take 20 minutes to get out there. We know where they are,” he said, referring to the bodies. “Then we could bring them home.” Survivors from the Monday eruption ran into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash and emerged covered in burns, said those who first helped them.

The tragedy will have an ongoing effect on the town of Whakatane, which road signs tout as the gateway to White Island. As well as being an important tourist draw for the 20,000 people who live here, the volcano has an almost mystical significance, its regular puffing a feature of the landscape.

Whether the island will ever host tourists again remains uncertain after the horrific tragedy that unfolded when the volcano exploded a little after 2 p.m. Monday. Geoff Hopkins was in a boat offshore after visiting the island with his daughter, the tour a 50th birthday present for him. He told the New Zealand Herald the eruption at first looked beautiful but quickly turned menacing.

As injured people were transported onto their boat screaming in pain, Hopkins and his daughter Lillani poured fresh water onto them, cut them out of their clothes and tried to keep them calm. He told the Herald they were horrifically burned on their exposed skin and faces, even under their clothes.

In all, police believe there were 47 visitors on the island at the time. They say 24 were Australian, nine were American and five were New Zealanders. Others were from Germany, Britain, China and Malaysia. Many were passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

The first confirmed death was of a local man, Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide who had shown tourists around the island. Former Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne said Marshall-Inman was a keen fisherman and well-liked. He was so kind, Bonne said, that he would often leave extra money at the grocery store for those he knew were struggling to pay.

Many people were left questioning why tourists were still allowed to visit the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano’s alert level last month. “These questions must be asked, and they must be answered,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament.

New Zealand’s Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims said Tuesday that police were opening a criminal investigation into the deaths that would accompany an investigation by health and safety regulators.

But hours later, police put out a statement saying that while they were investigating the deaths on behalf of the coroner, “To correct an earlier statement, it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 11 Australians are unaccounted for and 13 were hospitalized. Three Australians were suspected to be among the initial five confirmed dead, he told reporters in Sydney. “I fear there is worse news to come,” Morrison said.

Relatives of a newlywed American couple say the husband and wife were severely burned. Barbara Barham told The Washington Post that her daughter Lauren Urey, 32, and son-in-law Matthew Urey, 36, from Richmond, Virginia, were on a honeymoon trip.

White Island, also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano about 50 kilometers (30 kilometers) off New Zealand’s main North Island. New Zealand’s GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had raised the volcano’s alert level on Nov. 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma. It also said volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength. It raised the alert level to 4 for a time after Monday’s eruption but lowered it to 3 as the activity subsided.

At least 10 people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulfur. Part of a crater wall collapsed, and a landslide destroyed the miners’ village and the mine itself. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953. Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.

“Tourism has been a growing market, and White Island has been an anchor for that,” Bonne said. “It’s something unique that pulls people from all around the world.” He said it was sad to think that might all now come to a stop.

Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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