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ISIL war to cost $406M

Defence Minister Jason Kenney is now saying the estimated cost of extending Canada's combat mission in Iraq and Syria will be $406 million, and he's instructed his department to include the figures in federal budget reports.

The federal Treasury Board's plans and priorities report for the coming fiscal year, released Tuesday, shows the price tags for overseas operations in both the Middle East and eastern Europe are classified.

Both opposition parties say hiding the figures is unacceptable.

Kenney, however, claims to have already released the numbers, but says the information wasn't available when the budget forecasts were signed off at the beginning of March.

Dave Perry of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute says it's the first — and only — time in nearly 20 years that a cost estimate for an international operation was withheld because it was deemed classified.

The budget estimates also show the age of austerity is here to stay at National Defence with baseline budget spending to expected to drop over the long term.

The Canadian Press


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Video alleges animal abuse

Warning: Graphic content

Mercy for Animals Canada has released a disturbing video alleging horrific animal abuse at Maple Lodge Farms in Toronto.

The animal rights group claims workers at Maple Lodge slam birds into metal shackles before they are shocked with electricity; allow them to freeze to death during transpor; and cut their throats while still conscious.  

The video was captured with use of a hidden camera to show the public a behind-the-scenes look at practices in the Maple Lodge plant, in what Mercy for Animals calls the name of cheap meat.

Since the video was released, Maple Lodge Farms has responded to the allegations, saying it has "taken immediate steps" to investigate alleged abuse.

In a company statement, Maple Lodge claims humane treatment of the birds in their care is a "very high priority, and a moral responsibility," that they take seriously.

"In keeping with our zero-tolerance policy for any violation of our animal welfare policies, we have taken and will take all appropriate disciplinary actions, including dismissal, in instances where non-compliance is identified. Any process improvements not already undertaken as part of our rigorous animal welfare improvement program will be implemented promptly."

The company states it is committed to achieving the best welfare standard possible for the birds in its charge and will be investing a significant amount of time and resources to ensure that commitment is fulfilled.



Cost of ISIL mission a secret

Parliament may have approved a year-long extension to the country's combat mission in Iraq and Syria, but the Harper government is once again refusing to say how much it will cost taxpayers.

Nor will it reveal the estimated pricetag for upcoming involvement in NATO's reassurance operations in eastern Europe.

Late Tuesday, the federal Treasury Board tabled its reports on plans and priorities for the coming fiscal year, which is a rough guidebook to upcoming departmental spending.

The costs of Operation Impact and Operation Reassurance are classified, according to National Defence.

Dave Perry of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute says he's astonished.

He says it is the first, and only, time since this form of Parliamentary reporting was created in 1996-97 that a cost estimate for an international operation was withheld because that information was deemed classified.

"I have absolutely no clue why this information is being withheld, and I'm astounded that it is," said Perry, an expert on defence spending who has written several detailed analyses of the effects of Conservative government's spending cuts on the military.

"I can't think of any reason why this information would — for the first time ever — now be considered classified and not releasable."

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris accused the government of not only keeping the public in the dark, but watchdogs such as the parliamentary budget office, which had a tough time compiling its own estimate on the war earlier this winter.

"This looks like Mr. Harper wants a blank cheque for this war, with no one having access to the numbers," he said. "They've already refused the PBO access, now the public will be kept in the dark."

The House of Commons approved a motion late Monday to extend the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant for a year, and expand airstrikes into Syria.

In Europe, Canada has sent a frigate to patrol with NATO's standing fleet, CF-18s for air policing over the Baltic and ground troops for land exercises with other allied nations. All of it is meant to show western solidarity in the face of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

More deployments and training are expected this year.

But it was over the cost of the mission in Iraq where the Conservatives fought a pitched battle with Opposition parties.

Former defence minister Rob Nicholson stonewalled the accountability demands of the New Democrats and Liberals, who pointed out the Americans keep a running, publicly reported tab of their expenses.

The wall of silence ended in early February with the appointment of Jason Kenney to the portfolio.

He promptly released the estimated cost to the end of the fiscal year, which amounted to $122.5 million. Although Kenney warned at the time that the figure at the end of the fiscal year could very well be higher, depending on whether the mission was renewed.

National Defence has also declared the revised estimates for that mission — and the one in eastern Europe — to be classified.

It notes that authority to spend money on both missions will come through supplementary appropriations before Parliament, but given that an election is expected this fall it will likely be a year, or more, before those figures are tabled.

The numbers add to a heightened level of secrecy surrounding both missions.

Access to flight crews carrying out the bombing campaign in Iraq — and now Syria — is non-existent. The military claims the Kuwait government won't allow journalists on its air bases.

Special forces, who are based in northern Iraq, do not allow media access. All information comes through tightly censored briefings at National Defence headquarters.

The department also prohibits photographs that identify soldiers taking part in overseas operations, including troops who recently left for a training exercise in Eastern Europe.

The Canadian Press


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Meat safety at risk: union

The union representing Canada's meat inspectors says a critical shortage of inspectors is putting the safety of consumers at risk across the country.

Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, told a news conference in Edmonton that only 12 of 18 meat hygiene inspection positions are filled at processing plants in northern Alberta. The numbers are the same in the Calgary region.

In January, he said, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also instructed staff in the northern part of the province to cut general sanitation inspection work by 50 per cent.

Kingston said a lack of funding is creating similar problems and concerns at facilities across Canada, and the federal government needs to put more money into meat safety.

"The entire beef basket of Canada is in the same corral," he said Tuesday.

"This government has a lot to say about protecting Canadians and I'm hoping they realize that these are more than just numbers on paper ... There are lives at risk — the real likelihood that people are going to die."

The CFIA and Health Minister Rona Ambrose, whose ministry is responsible for the agency, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The union, part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, released a CFIA document from December 2014 that calls for a reduced work plan for inspectors in northern Alberta.

Kingston said some inspectors are worried sick about declining safety standards and others have quit.

"They just can't take the pressure anymore."

The union has been raising the staff shortage issue for more than a year, said Kingston, and the government promised that money would be coming to fill vacant inspector jobs. Instead, he said, the government decided to cut back on inspections.

Last week, the CFIA announced that Lilydale Inc. was recalling packages of roast chicken breasts over concerns about possible Listeria contamination. The product was distributed in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The Edmonton plant that processed the chicken is getting three inspections a week and less monitoring, Kingston said.

But all meat destined for the United States comes from plants that are inspected every 12 hours that they are open, he added.

"This government and the agency is committed to exports," said Marianne Hladun, the Prairies vice-president with PSAC.

"They will put the money into making sure the meat going to American markets is inspected at the standards that the U.S. requires. But when it comes to Canadians, that's where the cuts are going to be felt."

She said the CFIA plans to spend $78 million less on food safety next year than it did in 2013-14.

In 2013, the federal government promised to bolster the food safety system by improving inspections after an E. coli outbreak at the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta., sickened 18 people and led to the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

The federal government also said it strengthened its food-safety protocols after a listeria outbreak in 2008. Twenty-two people died and hundreds more fell ill after eating contaminated deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

The Canadian Press


New Wallin allegations

The RCMP has filed new documents in court alleging Pamela Wallin submitted 21 travel expense claims to the Senate for reimbursement for private and business trips to Toronto and Guelph.

The allegations are spelled out in documents seeking a court order to compel BMO Nesbitt Burns, Bell Media and the University of Guelph to produce all documentation related to Wallin's expenses.

They are on top of documents filed in court earlier this month by the Mounties alleging that the disgraced senator defrauded the Senate by making 150 "suspicious" expense claims.

The RCMP alleges Wallin committed breach of trust and fraud over $5,000.

No charges have been laid against Wallin, who was suspended from the Senate last year and none of the allegations has been proven in court.

Wallin — who sat on the advisory board for BMO Nesbitt Burns, served as an independent director for CTV Globemedia and served as chancellor of the University of Guelph — has been under investigation by the Mounties for the last 18 months.

They have already charged two other former Conservative senators, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, and one retired Liberal senator, Mac Harb, with making fraudulent expense claims. All three maintain their innocence.

In the latest court documents, the RCMP alleges that between March 4, 2009, and Sept. 5, 2012, Wallin filed fraudulent expense claims to the Senate in the amount of $25,567 for personal and business trips to Toronto and Guelph.

One of those trips was for a BMO board event, eight were for CTV events and 12 were for events at the University of Guelph and Humber College, the RCMP alleges.

"Sen. Wallin, when questioned during an external audit, misrepresented the nature of these trips to Toronto, and at time, fabricating meetings which the RCMP was able to determine (through interviews) to have not taken place as asserted by Sen. Wallin," Cpl. Rudy Exantus wrote in the documents.

"In doing so, I believe Sen. Wallin breached the standard of responsibility and conduct demanded of her and by the nature of her office. I believe that Sen. Wallin's conduct represent(s) a serious and marked departure from the standards expected of a Canadian senator."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the whole Senate scandal throws the judgement of Prime Minister Stephen Harper — who appointed Wallin, Brazeau and Duffy — into question.

"First appointing Ms. Wallin and Mr. Duffy to the Senate to be Conservative fundraisers and then actually reassuring the House on multiple occasions ... that Ms. Wallin's expenses were not out of the ordinary and were perfectly fine," Trudeau said.

"I think we're seeing the RCMP have a different mind set on that."

NDP MP Charlie Angus urged the RCMP to continue investigating.

"The fact that someone who was so trusted by the prime minister appears to have used her position as a public senator using public funds to travel across the country, sitting on all manner of corporate boards, that does need to be investigated," he said.

"We are talking about a breach of trust and we're talking about defrauding the Canadian taxpayer."

The Canadian Press


Celeb chef issues challenge

Jamie Oliver, Britain's celebrity chef, has thrown down the gauntlet — or maybe it's an oven mitt — to Canadian politicians to join his international campaign for mandatory diet education in rich countries.

The popular chef, television star and best-selling author says it is time for Canadian politicians to do something about their country's number one killer: diet-related disease.

"The biggest killer in your country is diet-related disease. It's not guns, it's not armed robbery," Oliver said in an exclusive interview from Sydney, Australia, where he launched a global campaign this week urging G20 countries to make food education mandatory in schools.

"When it has a dramatic cost to public health, which it does in Canada ... you really need to do something much more long term, much more strategic."

Oliver is well known for his international advocacy for healthy food in schools, but he's upping the ante with his G20 campaign.

He's aiming for millions of signatures worldwide, and is off to a good start: an online petition through the website Change.org attracted 160,000 in the first 24 hours. Oliver cooked for G20 leaders in London at their 2009 summit.

Oliver said he's not political, but the issue of healthy food has been a politically charged one in Canada.

Recent images showed Rankin Inlet residents foraging for food in a dump, while the United Nations food envoy criticized Canada two years ago for not ensuring healthy food reached vulnerable populations, including aboriginals.

"It's about Canadian politicians looking after every child, whether they're middle class, whether they're from rich communities, whether they're poor or whether they're in the far limbs of the country, and whatever ethnic backgrounds," said Oliver.

This week, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, for the first time in more than two decades, called on doctors to monitor the growth of their young patients on an ongoing basis.

It recommended that doctors refer their young overweight or obese patients to structured behavioural inventions such as working with nutritionists and other professionals.

Oliver said it is cheaper in the long term and ultimately more effective to target children in schools, with a mandatory curriculum that teaches them how to raise a garden, cook food, and learn "about geography, the history, the science, the maths behind it all."

"Compulsory food education for every Canadian kid has not been promised, and that to me is immoral," said Oliver.

"It's time for the Canadian government to draw a line in the sand and say we need to support teachers. When kids come to school with no breakfasts ... when the food in lunch boxes is inappropriate, this is not helping teachers do their jobs."

Oliver said he finds Canadians to be generally better educated about food issues than people in other countries, so he said they should "not ask, but tell" their politicians to do more.

That's one reason why he said he partnered with Nova Scotia-based supermarket chain Sobeys two years ago to bring healthy food options to consumers.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Food, Oliver de Shutter, tried offering some advice to the Harper government in 2013 when he called for a national food strategy to deal with what he saw as nutritional inequities.

In response, then health minister Leona Aglukkaq called De Schutter "ill-informed" and "patronizing" while former immigration minister Jason Kenney described him as "completely ridiculous."

The Canadian Press


Smart get rich, rich get smart

Students attending private high schools do better academically than their public schools counterparts because of socio-economic factors and peers who tend to have university-educated parents, according to a Statistics Canada study released Tuesday.

School resources and practices play little or no role in the differences, the study concludes.

"Compared with public school students, higher percentages of private school students lived in two-parent families with both biological parents; their total parental income was higher; and they tended to live in homes with more books and computers," the researchers state.

Considered the first of its kind, the researchers sought to look at both the quality of private schools — attended by about six per cent of Canada's student population — and the students they attract to find out what accounted for the well documented differences in academic achievement.

According to the findings, private high school students score significantly higher on reading, mathematics, and science assessments at age 15. They also have higher levels of educational attainment by age 23.

Data show Quebec has the highest proportion of students in private schools — about one in five. By contrast, the Atlantic provinces have fewer than one in 100. As a result, the researchers looked at students in six provinces: Quebec, Ontario Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

While the research by StatsCan's Marc Frenette and Ping Ching Winnie Chan found that the province in which private schools are located makes a significant difference in terms of academic outcomes at the high-school level, it had no impact on achievement at the post-secondary level.

"By accounting for province-fixed effects and student socio-economic characteristics first, the remaining gap in academic performance between private and public school students can be roughly interpreted as the estimated marginal impact of private school attendance," the authors state.

The researchers focused on about 7,000 students born in 1984 attending almost 1,180 schools. They relied on a review of current and recent literature, national and international surveys and questionnaires, and student tests.

"This study advances the literature by using a data set that contains information not only on students and their parents (including aspects of their home life), but also on school resources and practices, and province of school attendance," the study states.

Sample sizes did not allow for a breakdown of results by type of private school, many of which are religious based.

However, one important question remains unanswered, the study states: Does the academic advantage the private school students enjoy continue into the labour market?

"The higher rates of post-secondary attendance among private high school students may translate to higher lifetime earnings," the study notes.

"This effect may be amplified through peers: A social network of gainfully employed friends may improve an individual’s chances of securing a well-paying job."

The Canadian Press


MP quits over evolution

British Columbia MP James Lunney is quitting the Conservative caucus so that he can more freely defend his religious beliefs.

Lunney, MP for Nanaimo-Alberni, says he's leaving voluntarily so as not to entangle his Tory colleagues in controversy over his beliefs regarding evolution.

He says he'll sit as an Independent but will continue to vote with the ruling Conservatives.

Lunney says his decision was sparked by reaction to remarks he made earlier this month, which he says were inflated by the media and became part of a firestorm of condemnation surrounding two Ontario politicians who do not believe in the theory of evolution.

He says the reaction showed ignorance and intolerance, cloaked in a defence of science.

In a statement, Lunney maintains there are deliberate attempts to suppress a Christian world view in the senior levels of politics.

The Canadian Press


Almost half believe in UFOs

Almost half of Western Canadians believe UFOs are real, a new survey by Insights West reveals.

British Columbians and Albertans are more likely to believe in the prevalence of unidentified flying objects than in the existence of Bigfoot or Ogopogo, the results found.

The online survey about popular conspiracy theories shows 46 per cent of British Columbians and 47 per cent of Albertans believe UFOs exist. About one third (35 per cent in B.C., 32 per cent in Alta.) also think the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was a conspiracy.

Two-in-five Albertans (40 per cent) and a third of British Columbians (32 per cent) think scientists have found a cure for cancer, but that the government or pharmaceutical companies are withholding it, while smaller proportions (27 per cent in B.C., 31 per cent in Alta.) believe a human being has already been cloned.

On two issues, there are wide gaps between the two provinces. Pondering the 1997 death of Princess Diana in a car crash, more than a third of Albertans (37 per cent) consider the event an assassination – a view shared by 27 per cent of British Columbians.

One-in-four Albertans (26 per cent) believe global warming is a hoax, compared with just 12 per cent of British Columbians.

“Many Western Canadians continue to look at certain issues related to medical research as fodder for conspiracy theories,” says Mario Canseco, vice-president of Insights West. “On climate change, however, the differences between British Columbia and Alberta are more pronounced.”

One-in-five residents (20 per cent in B.C., 21 per cent in Alta.) believe in Bigfoot (or Sasquatch). Similar proportions (19 per cent in B.C., 18 per cent in Alta.) think 9/11 was a U.S. government conspiracy, while slightly fewer believe that Ogopogo exists (16 per cent in B.C., 15 per cent in Alta.) and that lottery outcomes are rigged (14 per cent in B.C., 13 per cent in Alta.).

Considerably fewer Western Canadians believe the lunar landings were a hoax (seven per cent in B.C., 10 per cent in Alta.), that Osama bin Laden is still alive (five per cent in B.C., six per cent in Alta.), that dinosaurs never existed (three per cent in B.C., four per cent in Alta.) and that Elvis is still alive (one per cent in both B.C. and Alta.).

Insights West first asked this question in 2013 in British Columbia and Alberta. The biggest fluctuations since then are a six-point decrease in the number of British Columbians who think 9/11 was a conspiracy, and a seven-point increase in the proportion of Albertans who believe Princess Diana was assassinated.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 24 to March 29, 2015, among 801 British Columbians and 508 Albertans aged 18 or older.



Search planes to be replaced

The Harper government has issued a long-awaited call for tenders to replace Canada's aging fixed-wing search planes, more than a decade after the project was first proposed.

The Public Works secretariat overseeing the program is asking the defence industry not only for aircraft, but also a capability-based solution, which means would-be contractors can propose details such as where the planes should be based.

The federal government also wants contractors to include 20 years of in-service support and maintenance in their proposal.

The air force is looking to replace six C-115 Buffalo transports, which are more than 50 years old, and 13 older C-130 Hercules, which have been the backbone of Canada's rescue response, particularly in the Arctic.

The delayed effort to replace the planes has been a procurement black eye for the Conservatives, especially since the program was declared "a top priority" by former defence minister Peter MacKay in 2008.

Federal budget documents suggest the government doesn't anticipate receiving new aircraft until 2018, and National Defence's own acquisition says that time frame could be pushed to 2021 — or 17 years after the program was initially proposed.

Under the Liberals, the program was pegged at $1.3 billion, but government documents suggest it's now more than $1.5 billion.

It's expected there will be only three companies bidding — Alenia Aermacchi with the C-27J Spartan; Airbus Military with the C-295 and Lockheed Martin's C-130J.

The program was initially knocked off track after the air force was accused of rigging the specifications to eliminate all competitors, except for the Italian-built C-27J.

Protests from industry were so loud that MacKay ordered the National Research Council to review the plan, and it reported back that the military's specifications were far too narrow and needed to be broadened in order to ensure competition.

What followed the 2009 report was years of industry consultations.

Despite the backlash to the original proposal, the air force last year continued to pitch the C-27J, telling the government that 17 surplus U.S. aircraft represented "a unique, time-sensitive investment opportunity" for Canada.

Internal documents showed military planners pitched the notion of acquiring those transports that were being sold by the Pentagon three years ago as part of a massive budget-cutting exercise south of the border.

The Canadian Press


G20 officer violated rights

A police officer who gained widespread notoriety for telling a protester at the infamous G20 summit that "this ain't Canada right now" committed battery when he manhandled him, Ontario's top court has concluded.

The ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal overturns a lower court finding that Sgt. Mark Charlebois had only touched Paul Figueiras at the June 2010 event in downtown Toronto.

"Even if Sgt. Charlebois was authorized to stop Mr. Figueiras and demand that he submit to a search, I do not accept that the grabbing and pushing that occurred here were 'necessary' to achieve this purpose," the Appeal Court found.

"Sgt. Charlebois committed the tort of battery."

The weekend G20 summit was marred by vandalism and the largest mass detention and violation of civil rights in Canadian peacetime history.

The particular incident occurred when a group of York Regional police officers brought in for the summit stopped Figueiras and his friends — who wanted to demonstrate in favour of animal rights — and told them to submit to a search if they wished to carry on walking down the street.

Figueiras refused, arguing the request violated his rights.

Charlebois's response — caught on widely viewed video — was to grab Figueiras, push him away and tell him to "get moving."

"There's no civil rights here in this area," Charlebois told him. "This ain’t Canada right now."

The protester turned to the courts, seeking only a declaration that the officers had violated his constitutional rights and that Charlebois had committed battery by grabbing and pushing him.

In the lower court ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Frederick Myers found police had acted lawfully and that any force Charlebois used was minimal and justified.

The Appeal Court disagreed on both counts.

"Rule of law is a fundamental principle of the Canadian constitution," the court said.

"The actions taken by Sgt. Charlebois and his team were not reasonably necessary and had little, if any, impact in reducing threats to public safety, imminent or otherwise."

The officers, the court found, were not simply controlling access to an area as might happen at an airport or courthouse where they have specific authority to screen everyone. Instead they were targeting some people and forcing them to submit to a search — without any authority to do so.

"The intention motivating the police conduct was therefore to stop everyone who appeared to be exercising their freedom of expression, and to impose an onerous condition upon them," the court ruled.

"The officers' remarks further undermine the reasonableness of their conduct, and aggravate the harm to Mr. Figueiras’s liberty."

Police, the court concluded, violated Figueiras's constitutional right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and liberty.

It ordered police to pay him $10,000 in legal costs.

The Canadian Press


Killer snake's owner charged

Police in New Brunswick have charged a man with criminal negligence causing death after two young brothers were asphyxiated by a python.

The RCMP said in a release today that the charge against 38-year-old Jean Claude Savoie was laid in provincial court Monday in Campbellton, N.B.

Four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother Connor were found dead on Aug. 5, 2013, after an African rock python escaped its enclosure inside Savoie's apartment in Campbellton, where they were staying for a sleepover.

The RCMP said at the time that the 45-kilogram snake escaped a glass tank through a vent and slithered through a ventilation pipe, but its weight caused the pipe to collapse and it fell into the living room where the boys were sleeping.

Police say autopsies determined the boys died from asphyxiation.

The RCMP say they arrested Savoie on Feb. 5 in Quebec and he is due in Campbellton provincial court on April 27 to face the charge.

The Canadian Press


Renewable energy grows

A United Nations-sponsored report says Canada remained among the top 10 countries in the world for investment in renewable energy last year.

The annual report released this morning found global investment in renewable energies, not including hydro-electric power, climbed 17 per cent in 2014 to around $270 billion.

The increase marked a global rebound after two years in which renewable energy investment shrank from its all-time high in 2011.

China was the clear colossus at the top of the renewable energy investment heap, with spending increasing 39 per cent over 2013 to a total of more than $83 billion.

The United States and Japan rounded out the top three — each investing more than $35 billion — while Canada placed sixth overall for the second year in a row, with investments of about $8 billion, up eight per cent over 2013.

The report found that, globally, solar and wind energy projects accounted for 92 per cent of all investment in renewables in 2014.

The Canadian Press


Vancouver traffic's the worst

Traffic congestion in most major Canadian cities is getting worse, according to a traffic index compiled by a firm that specializes in navigation and mapping products.

TomTom's fifth annual traffic index suggests the average commuter lost 84 hours in 2014 while delayed in traffic in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Nationally, the index shows the average time lost to traffic was almost 79 hours, an increase of two per cent over 2013.

In Canada's most congested cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa – the index shows congestion has grown by a combined seven per cent.

Amsterdam-based TomTom blames high levels of congestion on the traditional work week in which many people have no choice but to be on the road at the same time.

It says more flexible schedules would help people save travel time while reducing rush hour congestion.

The Canadian Press




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