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Cali. fire third largest

UPDATED 9:09 a.m.

The massive wildfire that California has been battling since early December has now ballooned into the third-largest in the state's history, burning a record amount of acreage, officials said Saturday.

Steve Concialdi of the Orange County Fire Authority said the Thomas Fire, which started Dec. 4 in Santa Paula, has now burned 259,000 acres (nearly 105,000 hectares). That exceeds the devastating Rim Fire in 2013 by 2,000 acres.

"As of this morning, we're at 259,000 acres and still growing," Concialdi said.

The region has had "red flag" — or hot, dry and windy — conditions for an unprecedented 13 consecutive days.

The National Weather Service says those conditions would last at least through Saturday evening, with winds gusting to 40 mph in the Santa Barbara County mountains where the fire is burning.

Everything about the fire was massive, from a footprint larger than that of many cities to the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighbourhoods or the legions attacking it: about 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters that were dropping thousands of gallons (litres) of water on fires and hot spots.

Firefighting costs were approaching $89 million.

The Thomas Fire surging through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has already burned more than 1,000 buildings, including well over 750 homes. Another 18,000 buildings are still in jeopardy, including mansions in the wealthy enclave of Montecito. Some 315 fire engines are stationed in and around homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara, along with "hand crews" armed with equipment like chain saws and drop torches. Another 200 fire engines are on standby.


The fourth-largest wildfire in California history continues to grow and threaten thousands of homes despite armies of fire crews and fleets of bulldozers and aircraft.

Although Santa Ana winds eased on Friday amid the blaze northwest of Los Angeles, they are expected to return with a vengeance over the weekend. And the fire is so large that winds on one end may be gustier than those on the other side.

The 11-day-old Thomas fire surging through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had devoured some 1,000 square kilometres of brush and timber and burned more than 1,000 buildings, including well over 750 homes.

Another 18,000 buildings are still in jeopardy, including mansions in the wealthy enclave of Montecito.

The fire is only 35 per cent surrounded despite efforts by some 8,000 firefighters, 32 helicopters and 78 bulldozers.

Santa Barbara has had only a tiny amount of rain since Oct. 1, the start of the new water year, and is more than 7.6 centimetres below normal to date.

The fire already has destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, including well over 700 homes, and threatens 18,000 more structures.

Another focus of firefighting was on the eastern flank in canyons where a state firefighter was killed Thursday near the agricultural town of Fillmore.

Officials have released no details on the death of 32-year-old Cory Iverson.

The National Weather Service forecast extreme fire danger or "red flag" conditions through at least Saturday evening, with winds gusting to 40 mph in the Santa Barbara County mountains where the fire is burning. Firefighters were facing first northerly "sundowner" winds through the night that could turn into northeasterly Santa Ana winds, driving the flames in another direction.

Everything about the fire was massive, from a footprint larger than that of many cities to the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighbourhoods or the legions attacking it: more than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 32 helicopters and 78 bulldozers.

Firefighting costs were approaching $89 million.



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Troops arrest Boko Haram

Military authorities say Nigerian soldiers have arrested more than 400 people associated with the Boko Haram extremist group hiding on the islands of Lake Chad, including fighters, wives and children.

The two-week operation netted the largest number of arrests of Boko Haram fighters in recent months in northeast Nigeria, Col. Onyema Nwachukwu said. The operation included air and ground offensives.

The military said many Boko Haram insurgents were killed, but it did not give details.

Among those arrested were 167 Boko Haram fighters, 67 women and 173 children. The women and children will be handed over to authorities of displacement camps after investigations, the military said.

Another 57 insurgents were arrested during a separate operation in another part of the troubled region.

Boko Haram has been blamed for more than 20,000 deaths during its eight-year insurgency, which has spilled over into neighbouring countries and created a vast humanitarian crisis with millions displaced and hungry.

Human rights groups have expressed concern about the large number of women and children who have been arrested in the fight against Boko Haram, saying most of those detained have been picked up at random and without reasonable suspicion.

In an effort relieve overcrowded military detention facilities, Nigeria's government in October began the trials of more than 1,600 suspected Boko Haram members behind closed doors at a military barracks. It was the largest mass trial in the Islamic extremist group's history.

While Nigeria's president late last year declared the extremist group had been "crushed," leader Abubakar Shekau remains elusive and the group in recent months has carried out a growing number of deadly suicide bombings and other attacks. Many have been carried out by women or children who were abducted and indoctrinated.

Earlier this week, dozens of Nigerian state governors approved the transfer of $1 billion to aid the federal government's fight against Boko Haram, signalling that the announcements of victory over the extremists had come too soon.



Firefighter dies fighting fire

One of the thousands of firefighters battling a series of wildfires across Southern California has died, but authorities gave no hint of how.

San Diego-based Cory Iverson was assigned to the blaze northwest of Los Angeles, which has become the fourth largest in California history. Iverson, 32, was an engineer with a state fire engine strike team. He died Thursday.

Dozens of police and fire vehicles escorted a hearse carrying Iverson's flag-draped body to the county medical examiner's office in Ventura.

Iverson had been with the state since 2009 and is survived by his pregnant wife and a two-year-old daughter, said Fire Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

It was the second death linked to the fire. A 70-year-old woman was killed in a car crash while evacuating as the fire raged last week. Her body was found inside the wrecked car along an evacuation route.

Pimlott did not provide any details about Iverson's death but said it was under investigation by an accident review team.

A return of gusty Santa Ana winds brought renewed activity to inland portions of the so-called Thomas Fire straddling coastal Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Pimlott said he was "deeply saddened" by Iverson's death but added that fire crews were continuing to focus on their mission.

"The firefight in front of us continues to go on. The communities we are protecting are depending on us and we will not fail," he said at an afternoon news conference.

Authorities said it now covered 379 square miles (982 square kilometres). That surpassed a blaze that burned inland Santa Barbara County a decade ago.

Firefighting costs so far were tallied at $74.7 million, according to Cal Fire.

Some evacuations were lifted and the risk to the agricultural city of Fillmore was diminishing. But coastal enclaves to the west remained under threat as crews protected hillside homes in Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.

The National Weather Service said extreme fire danger conditions could last through the weekend due to lack of moisture along with a likely increase in wind speeds.

Firefighters made some progress Wednesday on corralling the fire, which continued to spread mostly into national forest land.

Since the blaze broke out on Dec. 4, it has burned destroyed 970 buildings — including at least 700 homes. Flames threatened some 18,000 buildings and prompted evacuations of about 100,000 people. Covering more ground than the city of San Diego, it was 35 per cent contained.



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GOP finalizes tax package

Republicans finalized their sweeping tax package Friday, expanding the child tax credit to placate a reluctant GOP senator as they pushed to muscle the bill through Congress next week and give President Donald Trump his first major legislative victory.

GOP lawmakers have been working to win the support of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential holdout, and they say they don't see an obstacle for passage.

"I'm confident we'll have the votes," said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the Republican negotiators on the bill.

Portman cast the bill as providing "the kind of middle-class tax relief that's desperately needed right now. People are looking at flat wages and higher expenses, and this will help."

Rubio wrote on Twitter earlier Friday that he was dissatisfied with the size of a tax credit that low-income families can claim for their children.

"The #workingclass is always forgotten in D.C. We need to add more #taxcuts for #workingclass parents especially those earning 20k- 50K," Rubio wrote.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee signed the final version of the legislation Friday, sending it to the House and Senate for final passage. They have been working to blend different versions passed by the House and Senate.

Two Republican members of the committee, Reps. Devin Nunes of California and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, said they believed Rubio's concerns had been met, but Rubio's office said he was still reviewing the bill.

The tax package would double the basic per-child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000. The bill makes a smaller amount available to families even if they owe no income tax. Noem said Friday the amount has been increased from $1,100 to $1,400.

Rubio has said he wanted the $1,100 figure increased, but he hasn't said by how much.

Low-income taxpayers would receive the money in the form of a tax refund, which is why it's called a "refundable" tax credit.

Rubio's potential defection had pushed the Republicans' razor-thin majority in the Senate closer to the edge.

Senate Republicans could still pass the package without Rubio's vote, but they would be cutting it extremely close. An original version was approved 51-49 — with Rubio's support.

The Senate turmoil erupted after a key faction of House Republicans came out in favour of the bill, boosting its chances. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus predicted the vast majority of their members would support the package.

House and Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday forged an agreement in principle on the most sweeping overhaul of the nation's tax laws in more than 30 years. The package would give generous tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest Americans — Trump among them — and more modest tax cuts to low- and middle-income families.

"I'm confident that at the end of the day, the Senate will approve this conference committee report because no one should be defending the status quo in this horrible tax code Americans have had to live with for too long," said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, a top House negotiator.

The tax legislation would cut the top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans from 39.6 per cent to 37 per cent.

The package would nearly double the standard deduction, to $24,000 for married couples. But it would scale back the deduction for state and local taxes, allowing families to deduct only up to a total of $10,000 in property and income taxes. The deduction is especially important to residents of high-tax states such as New York, New Jersey and California.

The final package slashes the corporate rate from 35 per cent to 21 per cent, a big win for corporate America.

Business owners who report business income on their personal tax returns would be able to deduct 20 per cent of that income.

The agreement also calls for repealing the mandate under the "Obamacare" health law that requires most Americans to get health insurance, a step toward the ultimate GOP goal of unraveling the law.

The business tax cuts would be permanent, but reductions for individuals would expire in 2026 — saving money to comply with Senate budget rules. In all, the bill would cut taxes by about $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, adding billions to the nation's mounting debt.

Rubio's opposition had come at a bad time for Senate Republicans, with two of them missing votes this week because of illness.

John McCain of Arizona, who is 81, is at a Washington-area military hospital being treated for the side effects of brain cancer treatment, and 80-year-old Thad Cochran of Mississippi had a non-melanoma lesion removed from his nose earlier this week. GOP leaders are hopeful they will be available next week.



Death toll rises

French authorities said one more student died Friday after a regional train sliced open a school bus in southern France, raising the overall death toll to five children.

Marseille prosecutor Xavier Tarabeux, who is co-ordinating the investigation with local authorities in the Pyrenees-Orientales region, told a press conference that an 11-year-old child died on Friday afternoon. Four children aged 12 or 13 died Thursday after the accident.

Tarabeux added that three children were released from hospital, but that six others remained hospitalized with injuries that are still life-threatening.

The bus driver, a 46-year-old woman, was also injured in the accident at a crossing close to the Spanish border and has yet to be questioned by investigators.

The bus was carrying 23 students aged 11 to 15 from the Christian Bourquin school in the village of Millas, near Perpignan in southern France. The school opened its doors Friday to offer counselling for grieving students and families.

Investigators were still working to determine the cause of the crash.

Philippe Vignes, the Pyrenees-Orientales chief, said he could not say whether the railway barriers meant to stop vehicles from driving onto the tracks when a train is coming were open or closed.

"There are contradictory rumours," he said. "We need to be very careful."

Tarabeux said "the testimonies on the functioning of the barriers are not consistent, but in favour of closed barriers."

Christian Faur, the head of the bus company, earlier told French media that he spoke with the bus driver at the hospital and that she was adamant the barriers were opened.

National railway company SNCF said in a statement it was "shocked" by Faur's allegations.

According to Tarabeux, alcohol and drugs tests performed on the two conductors who were in the locomotive were negative. The bus driver was tested for alcohol and returned a negative result too.

SNCF said the train was carrying 25 people, including passengers and crew, and all were accounted for and being offered counselling. She said the train normally travels at 80 kph (50 mph) at that location.

Tarabeux said it was travelling at 75 kph, under the authorized limit of 100 kph.

French President Emmanuel Macron evoked the nation's "sadness" and "solidarity" toward the victims' families at a news conference Friday at a European Union summit in Brussels.

Vignes added that investigators would also look into reports that the batteries in the automatic train gate system had been stolen.



Who will be invited?

Save the date. Kensington Palace announced Friday that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have chosen May 19 as their wedding date.

When Harry's older brother William married Kate Middleton in 2011, former governor general David Johnston and his wife Sharon were in attendance. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper sent his regrets, given the wedding came just days before a federal election. Toronto-born David Furnish and his husband Elton John also attended the wedding watched around the world.

Here's a look at a few Canadians who could be in line for a coveted invite to next year's royal wedding:

THE TRUDEAUS

Given the invite extended to the Harpers, it seems likely that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau will be on the exclusive list this time. Plus, "Suits" star Markle is already well acquainted with the Trudeaus. In April 2016, Markle shared images from a "girls night out" with Gregoire Trudeau and fashion stylist Jessica Mulroney on Instagram. A few months later, Markle shared photos of her talking with the prime minister in Ottawa at an event for the non-profit One Young World.

THE MULRONEYS

Jessica Mulroney, who is married to TV personality Ben Mulroney and is daughter-in-law to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, seems a lock. The British press is even speculating that she could be in the wedding party. The Sun tabloid listed her third on a list of bridesmaid contenders, which also included tennis star Serena Williams and actress Priyanka Chopra.

MARKUS ANDERSON

Another frequently featured subject on Markle's Instagram feed, Anderson made Toronto Life magazine's list of the city's most influential people in 2014. Listed as a "party consultant" for the celebrity hot spot Soho House, the magazine said Anderson "has amassed a contact list that would make a paparazzo swoon." Anderson was also photographed with Markle at September's Invictus Games in Toronto and was reportedly the one who introduced the couple.

ERDEM MORALIOGLU

Markle has been a strong supporter of Canadian fashion designers since moving to Toronto to film "Suits" and Moralioglu — whose work is produced under the Erdem brand — has been highlighted as one of her favourites. The international fashion press has widely speculated that Markle might choose Moralioglu to make her wedding dress. Moralioglu's mother is British and after taking fashion at Toronto's Ryerson University, he moved to London in 2000 to continue his studies at the Royal College of Art.

PATRICK J. ADAMS

The Toronto-born actor played Markle's love interest in "Suits" and it's been rumoured that the onscreen couple will be married in already-shot future episodes. Markle has confirmed that she's leaving the legal drama, which has prompted questions about the future of the series. When the official Twitter account for Kensington Palace tweeted the engagement announcement last month, Adams jokingly replied with the tweet: "She said she was just going out to get some milk..." He later added: "Playing Meghan's television partner for the better part of a decade uniquely qualifies me to say this: Your Royal Highness, you are a lucky man and I know your long life together will be joyful, productive and hilarious. Meghan, so happy for you, friend. Much love."



Trump takes shot at FBI

President Donald Trump said Friday "it's a shame what's happened" with the FBI, calling the agency's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation "really disgraceful."

Trump, who has described the agency as "in tatters," told reporters "we're going to rebuild the FBI."

Shortly afterward, Trump told law enforcement leaders he is "more loyal than anyone else could be" to police. He spoke at the FBI campus in Virginia at a ceremony for law enforcement leaders graduating from a program aimed at raising law enforcement standards.

"The president of the United States has your back 100 per cent," Trump told graduates, saying law enforcement needs to be supported.

"Anti-police sentiment is wrong and it's dangerous," he added. "Anyone who kills a police officer should get the death penalty."

Trump used the speech to celebrate his decision to make it easier for local police forces to purchase surplus military equipment, and to question rising violence in Chicago.

"What the hell is going on in Chicago? What the hell is happening there," he asked.

Trump's comments to reporters about the FBI probe of Clinton's email practices came as he left the White House for the speech in Quantico, Virginia, and an hour after an aide said newly revealed FBI records show there is "extreme bias" against Trump among senior leadership at the FBI.

White House Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox News Channel Friday morning that edits to former FBI Director James Comey's statement on Hillary Clinton's private email server and text messages from a top agent critical of Trump are "deeply troubling."

"There is extreme bias against this president with high-up members of the team there at the FBI who were investigating Hillary Clinton at the time," Gidley charged, as special counsel Robert Mueller pushes on with a probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. Gidley says Trump maintains confidence in the FBI's rank-and-file.

Edits to the Comey draft appeared to soften the gravity of the bureau's finding in its 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state.

"It is very sad when you look at those documents, how they've done that is really, really disgraceful, and you have a lot of really angry people who are seeing it," Trump said of the document.

Gidley said the disclosure of politically charged text messages sent by one of the agents on the Clinton case, Peter Strzok, were "eye-opening." Strzok, who was in the room as Clinton was interviewed, was later assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller's team to investigate potential co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He was re-assigned after the messages were uncovered this summer.

About 200 leaders in law enforcement from around the country attended the weeks-long FBI National Academy program aimed at raising law enforcement standards and co-operation. Coursework included intelligence theory, terrorism and terrorist mindsets, law, behavioural science, law enforcement communication, and forensic science.



Royal wedding date set

Kensington Palace says the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be held on May 19.

The palace announced the date Friday and confirmed the ceremony will take place in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The couple announced their engagement last month after an 18-month romance.

The 33-year-old prince, who is fifth in line to the British throne, and the 36-year-old American actress met through a mutual friend in 2016.



Eminem pop-up

Rapper Eminem is hosting a promotional event in Detroit in the style of a pop-up restaurant with a menu featuring "mom's spaghetti."

Eminem touted the Friday event at the Shelter club to promote his new album, "Revival," in a tweet Thursday, saying: "Detroit! Come vomit up some spaghetti with me this weekend at our official #Revival pop up."

He says food and exclusive merchandise will be available.

The spaghetti menu item is a nod to lyrics from his Oscar-winning hit "Lose Yourself" from the movie, "8 Mile," in which he's so nervous about competing in a rap battle that "there's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti."

Last month, the rapper released a freestyle rap that derided President Donald Trump, focusing on Trump's campaign against NFL national anthem protests.



Dustin Hoffman exposed?

More women are accusing Dustin Hoffman of sexual misconduct, including an incident in which a playwright says the actor exposed himself to her in a New York hotel room when she was 16-years-old.

Playwright Cori Thomas described the 1980 incident in a story published Thursday by the trade outlet Variety. She confirmed the story in an email to The Associated Press.

Thomas was a classmate of Hoffman's daughter when she says she met the actor, who invited her to his hotel room to wait for her mother after a dinner with the teenagers. Thomas says after Hoffman's daughter left, the actor took a shower and came out wearing only a towel, which she told Variety he dropped, exposing herself to him. Hoffman then put on a robe and asked Thomas to massage his feet, Thomas said, and repeatedly asked her if she wanted to see him naked again.

The Variety report included the account of another woman, Melissa Kester, who said the actor pushed his hand down her pants while they were in a recording studio. The incident occurred while Hoffman was recording music for the film "Ishtar," and happened behind a partition while others, including Kester's boyfriend, were nearby.

Hoffman's publicist and attorney did not return email messages seeking comment Thursday.

It is the latest allegation of sexual harassment or abuse against the 80-year-old Oscar winner.

Actress Anna Graham Hunter has alleged that Hoffman groped her and made inappropriate comments when she was a 17-year-old intern on the set of the 1985 TV movie "Death of a Salesman."

Hoffman said in an earlier statement that the incident "is not reflective of who I am."

The report came a week after Hoffman was pointedly questioned about his treatment of women by late-night host John Oliver. Hoffman appeared blindsided by Oliver's questioning at a panel hosted by Oliver.

In a lengthy statement emailed to the AP, Thomas wrote of Hunter's allegations, "I recognized Ms. Hunter's story as the truth immediately because of the similarities to what happened to me."

She said attacks on Hunter's credibility led her to speak to Variety about her experience with Hoffman.

"In response to why I've stayed quiet for so many years, I have not stayed quiet for so many years, friends and family have been aware of this story for many many years, I just didn't go to newspapers with the story is all," she wrote. "And I regret that. I realize now, that the reason this continued to happen to others, was because of my silence, and I feel guilty about that but I hadn't even processed how badly this shamed and hurt me."



Cow escapes nativity scene

A cow in Philadelphia apparently wanted to be away from the manger, as it escaped twice Thursday morning from a church's live nativity scene.

Stormy, a 7-year-old brown and white Hereford, was back munching hay at Old First Reformed Church of Christ by 7:15 a.m. after two sets of adventures on snowy downtown streets.

Police first got reports of a cow near an Interstate 95 on-ramp around 2 a.m. Thursday.

One of the state police troopers who responded has a cattle ranch in New Jersey and knew how to handle the situation, WPVI-TV reports . Officers put a rope on the cow and walked her to a nearby parking lot with police vehicles helping shepherd Stormy back to church. Some lanes of the highway had to be shut down as the cow was wrangled.

But for Stormy, all was not calm and bright. She fled again around 6 a.m., despite Rev. Michael Caine's best efforts to stop the 1,500-pound animal. She then ambled toward a major thoroughfare as the morning rush got underway.

"If you're in the area of 4th and Market, beware of traffic delays. A cow is loose. Again. No, we can't believe we are tweeting this either," the police department tweeted just before 7 a.m.

This time, the bovine was tracked down on the fourth floor of a parking garage about a block south of the church.

By late morning, Stormy was loaded into a trailer to head back to the Manatawna Saul Farm, which is a high school 4-H club that owns her.

Scott Moser, who helps the students with the animals, told The Associated Press because Stormy figured out how to push open the gate — despite its beefed up latch system — it seems to have become a bit of a game for her.

They decided to use her understudy, a cow about half her size named Ginger.

As for Stormy, Moser said she has never been a troublemaker before.

"She's a very calm cow," he said. "Nothing really fazes her."



FCC ends 'net neutrality'

In a vote along party lines, the federal government has ended sweeping net-neutrality rules that guaranteed equal access to the internet.

The Thursday vote at the Federal Communications Commission will likely usher in big changes in how Americans use the internet, a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight. The move not only rolls back restrictions that keep broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from blocking or collecting tolls from services they don't like, but bars states from imposing their own rules.

The broadband industry promises that the internet experience isn't going to change, but its companies have lobbied hard to overturn these rules. Protests have erupted online and in the streets as everyday Americans worry that cable and phone companies will be able to control what they see and do online.

That growing public movement suggests that the FCC vote won't be the end of the issue. Opponents of the move plan legal challenges, and some net-neutrality supporters hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who said his plan to repeal net neutrality will eliminate unnecessary regulation, called the internet the "greatest free-market innovation in history." He added that it "certainly wasn't heavy-handed government regulation" that's been responsible for the internet's "phenomenal" development.

"What is the FCC doing today?" he asked. "Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence."

Under the new rules, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.

The change also axes consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC's approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who was appointed by President Barack Obama, lambasted the "preordained outcome" of the vote that she says hurts people, small and large businesses, and marginalized populations. She outlined her dissent from prepared remarks before the vote.

The end of net neutrality, she said, hands over the keys to the internet to a "handful of multi-billion dollar corporations."

With their vote, the FCC's majority commissioners are abandoning the pledge they took to make a rapid, efficient communications service available to all people in the U.S., without discrimination, Clyburn said in her dissenting remarks before the vote.



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