Tag Archives: talks

Iran blames Israel for sabotage at Natanz site as U.S. begins talks to re-enter nuclear deal

Iran blamed Israel on Monday for a sabotage attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged its centrifuges, an assault that imperils ongoing talks over its tattered nuclear deal and brings a shadow war between the two countries into the light.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. It rarely does for operations carried out by its secret military units or its Mossad intelligence agency. However, Israeli media widely reported that the country had orchestrated a devastating cyberattack that caused a blackout at the nuclear facility. Meanwhile, a former Iranian official said the attack set off a fire.

The attack further strains relations between the United States, which under President Joe Biden is now negotiating in Vienna to re-enter the nuclear accord, and Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to stop the deal at all costs. Netanyahu met Monday with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose arrival in Israel coincided with the first word of the attack.

At a news conference at Israel’s Nevatim air base Monday, where he viewed Israeli air and missile defence systems and its F-35 combat aircraft, Austin declined to say whether the Natanz attack could impede the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Iran in its nuclear program.

“Those efforts will continue,” Austin said. The previous American administration under Donald Trump had pulled out of the nuclear deal with world powers, leading Iran to begin abandoning its limits.

‘We will take revenge’

Details remained scarce about what happened early Sunday at the facility. The event was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began referring to it as an attack.

A former chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the attack had also set off a fire at the site and called for improvements in security. In a tweet, Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said that the second attack at Natanz in a year signalled “the seriousness of the infiltration phenomenon.” Rezaei did not say where he got his information.

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

“The answer for Natanz is to take revenge against Israel,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said. “Israel will receive its answer through its own path.” He did not elaborate.

Khatibzadeh acknowledged that IR-1 centrifuges, the first-generation workhorse of Iran’s uranium enrichment, had been damaged in the attack, but did not elaborate. State television has yet to show images from the facility. However, the facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi walking above ground at the site fell seven metres through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Natanz would be reconstructed with more advanced machines. That would allow Iran to more quickly enrich uranium, complicating the nuclear talks.

“The Zionists wanted to take revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting sanctions,” Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying. “But we do not allow (it), and we will take revenge for this action against the Zionists.”

Previous target of sabotage

Officials launched an effort Monday to provide emergency power to Natanz, said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. He said enrichment had not stopped there, without elaborating.

The IAEA, the United Nations body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the blackout at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges there during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire at the Natanz facility. Authorities later described the mysterious explosion as sabotage. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/The Associated Press)

In July, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for that, as well as the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Israel also has launched a series of airstrikes in neighbouring Syria targeting Iranian forces and their equipment. Israel also is suspected in an attack last week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout, but it remains unclear what actually happened there. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of the blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.'”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is penetrable, he said.

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Biden wants Russia, China to take part in climate talks

U.S. President Joe Biden is including rivals Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China among the invitees to the first big climate talks of his administration, an event the U.S. hopes will help shape, speed up and deepen global efforts to cut climate-wrecking fossil fuel pollution, administration officials told The Associated Press.

Biden is seeking to revive a U.S.-convened forum of the world’s major economies on climate that George W. Bush and Barack Obama both used and Donald Trump let languish.

Leaders of some of the world’s top climate-change sufferers, do-gooders and backsliders round out the rest of the 40 invitations being delivered Friday — including to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It will be held virtually April 22 and 23.

WATCH | Environment minister on Canada’s ambitions for emissions reduction targets:

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says the federal government will announce more aggressive emissions reduction targets in April at the U.S. climate summit: “We need to ensure our targets are aligned with the science.” 2:26

Hosting the summit will fulfil a campaign pledge and executive order by Biden, and the administration is timing the event with its own upcoming announcement of what’s a much tougher U.S. target for revamping the U.S. economy to sharply cut emissions from coal, natural gas and oil.

The session — and whether it’s all talk, or some progress — will test Biden’s pledge to make climate change a priority among competing political, economic, policy and pandemic problems.

It also will pose a very public — and potentially embarrassing or empowering — test of whether U.S. leaders, and Biden in particular, can still drive global decision-making after the Trump administration withdrew globally and shook up longstanding alliances.

The Biden administration intentionally looked beyond its international partners for the summit, reaching out to key leaders for what it said would sometimes be tough talks on climate matters, an administration official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. plans for the event.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is among a group of 40 world leaders the U.S. is inviting to participate in a virtually-hosted forum on climate issues next month. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Leaving behind Trump’s approach

Trump mocked the science underlying urgent warnings on global warming and the resulting worsening of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. He pulled the United States out of the 2015 UN Paris climate accords as one of his first actions as president.

That makes next month’s summit the first major international climate discussions by a U.S. leader in more than four years, although leaders in Europe and elsewhere have kept up talks.

U.S. officials and some others give the Obama administration’s major-economies climate discussions some of the credit for laying the groundwork for the Paris accord. The United States and nearly 200 other governments at those talks each set targets for cutting their fossil-fuel emissions, and pledged to monitor and report their emissions.

Another Biden administration official said the U.S. is still deciding how far the administration will go in setting a more ambitious U.S. emissions target.

The Biden administration hopes the stage provided by next month’s Earth Day climate summit — planned to be all virtual due to COVID-19 and all publicly viewable on livestream, including breakout conversations — will encourage other international leaders to use it as a platform to announce their own countries’ tougher emission targets or other commitments, ahead of November’s UN global climate talks in Glasgow.

Showing commitment

The administration hopes more broadly that the session will demonstrate a commitment to cutting emissions at home and encouraging the same abroad, the official said.

That includes encouraging governments to get moving on specific, politically-bearable ways to retool their transportation and power sectors and overall economies now in order to meet those tougher future targets, something the Biden administration is just embarking on.

Like the major-economies climate forums held by Bush and Obama, Biden’s invite list includes leaders of the world’s biggest economies and European blocs.

Putin, seen listening during a meeting in Moscow this week, has been invited to participate. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/The Associated Press)

That includes two countries — Russia and China — that Biden and his diplomats are clashing with over election interference, cyberattacks, human rights and other issues. It’s not clear how those two countries in particular will respond to the U.S. invitations, or whether they are willing to co-operate with the U.S. on cutting emissions while sparring on other topics.

China is the world’s top emitter of climate-damaging pollution. The U.S. is No. 2. Russia is No. 4.

Climate scientists and climate policy experts largely welcomed Biden’s international overture on climate negotiations, especially the outreach to China.

“China is by far the world’s largest emitter. Russia needs to do more to reduce its emissions. Not including these countries because they aren’t doing enough would be like launching an anti-smoking campaign but not directing it at smokers,” said Nigel Purvis, who worked on climate diplomacy in past Democratic and Republican administrations.

Worthwhile outreach

Ideally, government leaders will be looking for opportunities to talk over specific matters, such as whether broad agreement is possible on setting any price on carbon emissions, said Bob Inglis, a former Republican lawmaker who works to involve conservatives and conservative approaches in climate efforts.

“That’s why this kind of outreach makes sense,” he said. 

Brazil is on the list as a major economy, but it’s also a major climate backslider under President Jair Bolsonaro, who derailed preservation efforts for the carbon-sucking Amazon and joined Trump in trampling international climate commitments.

The 40 invitees also include leaders of countries facing some of the gravest immediate threats, including low-lying Bangladesh and the Marshall islands, countries seen as modelling some good climate behaviour, including Bhutan and some Scandanavian countries, and African nations with variously big carbon sink forests or big oil reserves.

Poland and some other countries on the list are seen as possibly open to moving away from dirty coal power faster. 

As a candidate, Biden pledged $ 2 trillion in investment to help transform the U.S. into a zero-emission economy by 2050 while building clean-energy and technology jobs.

Biden and other administration officials have been stressing U.S. climate intentions during early one-on-one talks with foreign leaders, and Biden climate envoy John Kerry has focused on diplomacy abroad to galvanize climate efforts.

Biden discussed the summit in a conversation Friday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with both leaders agreeing on the need to keep emissions-cutting targets ambitious, the White House said.

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Interview: NASA’s Adam Steltzner Talks Perseverance, 10 iPhones in a Box, and Why We Shouldn’t Colonize Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to touch down on Mars this week, and we had the opportunity to talk to one of the people who had a hand in bringing this mission to fruition. Adam Steltzner is the chief engineer of the Mars 2020 project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and he designed the rover’s ambitious sample return system. He’s featured heavily in the upcoming Nat Geo documentary Built for Mars, which follows the twists and turns of getting this robot to the red planet. Our conversation below was lightly edited for clarity and length.

ExtremeTech: When preparing for Mars 2020, was the plan always to build on the Curiosity chassis?

Adam Steltzner: Yes. From the very, very beginning, our currently deputy project manager, who was previously the flight system manager on Curiosity, after Curiosity was off from Earth and on the way to Mars, he sat down and blue sky said, “How much spare equipment do I have?” At Curiosity’s launch, there was no plan for any follow-on missions. So Matt Wallace sat down and said, “How much equipment do we have? Could one put that together and defer the costs of a build and get a mission to Mars building essentially on the investment that we’ve made with Curiosity?” From its very first–the idea was to build off of Curiosity’s foundation.

ExtremeTech: Were there any ideas pitched for Perseverance that you just couldn’t make happen because of time or expense?

Adam: Not really!

ExtremeTech: You got everything you wanted?

Adam: I’m just making sure that–it’s rare that somebody says, “Did you get everything you wanted?” That’s why it takes me a while to say yes because I’m like, “I guess I did.” I’m not used to that, but yes.

ExtremeTech: What’s the specific geological significance of Jezero Crater where Perseverance is going to touch down?

Adam: The scientists want to go to Jezero crater, they tell me, because it was once a lake back in that wet time for Mars, and right where we’re landing was the delta. I am being educated that deltas are deltaic deposits. That’s to say, the sediment that creates the fan-like structure of a delta.

The fan-like structure of a delta comes from when a river runs into a bigger body of water, the water slows down. When it was moving quickly, it was able to carry particles and sediments with it in suspension, in Stokes flow. But when it slows down, mean velocity in the flow is reduced, and it can no longer carry those particles in Stokes flow.

When they settle out, they are incredibly good at preserving evidence of life that was carried with those stream beds or living there, as they add on a protective layer of geological material. Deltaic deposits are the best places we find here on Earth to look for signs of ancient life. The Jezero Crater, where it is on the globe of Mars, and the fact that it’s wet, the fact that we’ve got a very clear delta are the reasons that we wanted to go to Jezero.

ExtremeTech: The Ingenuity Helicopter is just a technology demonstration with no important instruments, but if it flies and works beautifully, is there any way that it could be used to help Perseverance complete its mission?

Adam: A helicopter or an aerial asset such as Ingenuity could be very, very useful to a surface mission. Ingenuity herself, because she’s a ride-along and a late addition, is sized such that she doesn’t have much of a life expectancy on the surface of Mars.

Seasonally, we will get to a place where the temperatures drop and there’s not enough sunlight for her to maintain battery temperature overnight to keep the battery cells good. She’s got a limit to her life expectancy, and therefore, we don’t have a plan. We don’t believe there’s an opportunity for a windfall use of Ingenuity. Now, if we’re wrong about all that, she survives, there may be, but we think that we’re really taking her there proving that we can fly on the surface of Mars in less than one percent of the atmosphere we have on earth. It’s very, very low density. That’s a very high altitude here on earth, way higher than helicopters ever fly.

We had to totally redesign the relationship between the elastic flexible modes of the rotor system and the atmospheric interaction modes. It’s upside-down compared to how helicopters are designed here on earth. She’s also taking some lightweight, highly integrated avionics electronics, flight electronics, that are offshoots of commercial consumer electronics. For instance, she has a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, which is a cellphone chip that is the size of my thumbnail and does an amazing job doing pretty much what our visual compute element, which is the size of a lunchbox, does.

ExtremeTech: Let’s talk about the sample return system. Why go to the trouble of bringing the samples back to Earth? What can you do with a Martian core sample here on Earth that you can’t do with a rover on Mars?

Adam: The answer to that is pretty easy. Anything you want. The problem with the other way, that is to say, doing the science investigation, what we call in situ at Mars, is you have to conceive of the measurements, you have to conceive of a hypothesis. You conceive of your scientific hypothesis, that there are, let’s say, organic materials trapped in the clays found here. Then you need to say, “what science instrument could take measurements to determine if there are organic compounds there? Can I miniaturize that science instrument?” Most of the time, the answer is, “No, you can’t,” but for some science, the answer is, “Yes, I can.”

So, you take something that would be the size of a room, a big piece of equipment, and make a miniature version of it that’s hardened for space flight, stick it on a rover, put it on Mars. You make the measurements and it’s like, “Yes, it does look like there’s organics. Are they biogenic? Gee, it’s hard to tell. Boy, I would like this other measurement.” Now I hypothesize an instrument to do that. That could be miniaturized and ruggedized and I do another expedition to Mars.

The problem is, as is always the case when we’re learning or understanding, each question we answer opens another question, and each of those question cycles is about 10 years for you to figure out how to build it, shrink it, build it, put it on Mars, take that measurement, get a new question, and do it again. If you bring the samples back from Mars to Earth, you have all of Earth’s equipment, all of Earth’s scientists, all of the ingenuity that is across this globe that can be brought to bear on the investigation.

ExtremeTech: It seems like if you’re bringing all these samples back and you’re going to do all these tests, you want to make very certain that you don’t accidentally analyze any bits of Earth.

Adam: Right.

ExtremeTech: How do you make sure? You’re building these things in the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s Earth all around you. How do you make sure none of it gets into the sample containers?

Adam: It’s a humungous pain in the ass. We’ve built the cleanest hardware that has ever been put in space. I designed the sampling system and invented the cleaning protocols. It was a huge effort. The way you do it is you carefully choose your materials. For instance, the sample tubes are made out of titanium, but they have a titanium nitride surface. The titanium sample tube is exposed to a low-pressure plasma of nitrogen gas in a high-energy environment. That high-energy nitrogen plasma penetrates the surface of the titanium and creates titanium nitride, which is a refractory material and is incredibly inert. It’s more passive than gold. That passivity means that things don’t like to stick to it. It’s like super Teflon in some sense.

Then we take that super clean passive system sample tube and we put it behind a fluid mechanical particle barrier. This is a specially designed barrier that does not allow any particles greater than 0.3 microns in size to make it into the volume in which the sample tubes are sealed. Then once they’re in that, we put them in an oven, and we bake that oven for hundreds of hours and clean everything out of the inside of that tube. Then we have something that looks a little bit like, in some sense, functionally, it’s a little bit like a Band-Aid. That is to say, it’s sterile, individually wrapped.

ExtremeTech: Did making the “cleanest hardware ever” cause any unforeseen issues?

Adam: Yes! Here’s a fun fact. Every friction measurement that an engineer has ever known is a friction measurement that’s conducted with a very, very thin film of hydrocarbons present on the surface of the material. If I take a piece of aluminum foil and I bake it, let’s say, at 500°C in an oxygen environment, that will combust all of the hydrocarbons on that piece of aluminum. Then I bring it outside of the chamber in a clean room, and I put it on a desk with a HEPA-filtered flow bench, with absolutely sterile, particle-free air blowing over it. Within hours, it will have accumulated a monolayer of hydrocarbons that just get sucked out of the atmosphere.

Your breakfast, my lunch, the decomposition of fall leaves — Earth is a soup. We think we’re walking around, but we’re really swimming in a soup of life and the byproducts of life. Those show up on every single piece of stuff you’ve ever touched. Some stuff has lots less of it. For instance, if you have a piece of titanium nitride, it doesn’t have as much. It accumulates more slowly, and it accumulates less, and it accumulates slightly different, in a molecular weight sense, than if I have a piece of aluminum. Aluminum’s very hungry. It has a reactive surface.

If you go to a testing laboratory that’s testing the friction coefficient between 440 stainless steel and nitronic 60, and they say, “Oh, yes, the friction coefficient between these two is X.” Well, what they were really doing is they were testing it with that thin film of hydrocarbons present on it. When you bake those away like we did, it’s much stickier. Everything is much stickier. We struggled a lot with that. In fact, we had to change, on the fly, our cleaning protocols. We had originally envisioned baking at 350°C for about 10 minutes, and we had to back down to 200°C, essentially to leave a little bit of hydrocarbons present on parts. When you go into this unworldly clean domain, you find yourself fighting against challenges that were hard to anticipate because they are challenges very different than any faced with all of human activity to date.

ExtremeTech: You need, I think, two more missions to get these samples back to Earth. Correct?

Adam: That’s correct.

ExtremeTech: Ballpark, when do you think you can have them back on Earth?

Adam: About 10 years, 10 to 12 years from now.

ExtremeTech: If Perseverance discovers life on Mars, when you get those samples back and you’re looking at them, what’s the piece of data that convinces scientists something was alive in Jezero crater three billion years ago?

Adam: Signs of ancient life can come in different forms. To make a convincing argument, you are likely to have several of those forms of evidence aligned. For instance, you would look at morphological shapes that look like microstructures or microfossils. Then you would look to see if those shapes were made out of what I think the scientists called carrageenan, which is essentially the carbon residue of life. You would use multiple lines of evidence.

You would look at the location in the geological deposit that these things were in and see that it was associated with, for instance, a lake shore in the past. You would use sets of evidence that were aligned and corroborated the position that ancient life in the form that you see. Just as we do today. You find things called stromatolites. Stromatolites are algae mats. They make this special form. That form, although not uniquely biotic — there are abiotic processes that can make similar forms and shapes in geology — but when you find the stromatolite-like forms and you are in a place where it’s an ancient lake bed, and the mineralogy of the elemental makeup of the stromatolite demonstrates the presence of these carbon-rich compounds associated with life, then all of those things together say that is a biotic stromatolite. That was an ancient lake bed, and that microfossil was the algae that was forming at the edge of the lake.

ExtremeTech: What does Mars smell like? Obviously, you haven’t been there to smell, but if you were to guess?

Adam: Mars smells like your grandparent’s clothing trunk that hasn’t been opened in decades.

ExtremeTech: I like that. Why?

Adam: There’s that kind of like empty, there’s a hint of something… it’s dry, it’s old, it’s dusty.

ExtremeTech: Kind of musty?

Adam: Yes. That’s what it is for me.

ExtremeTech: How far away do you think we are from being able to colonize Mars? And would you ever go?

Adam: I hope infinitely far away from being able to colonize Mars.

ExtremeTech: You don’t think that Mars is someplace we should live?

Adam: No. In the evolution of Earth, the Earth’s environment has gotten pretty bad at times. Most notably, about 65 million years ago, when an asteroid smashed into what’s now a region of the Yucatán Peninsula and killed all the dinosaurs with a dusted atmosphere. It killed a lot of the plants and 90 percent of the species. In the middle of that moment, the environment on Earth was still infinitely more habitable for life than I think we could ever make Mars.

We evolved to have one Earth gravity that keeps my spinal fluid in the right pressures as I stand, and if I don’t stand frequently, my body doesn’t like it, I age poorly. People who are bedridden die very rapidly because their bodies are made to move and they’re made to move in one G. The fibers of my bones grow in directions of the principal stress state of my skeleton as defined by the way it interacts with Earth’s gravity. I am so much of Earth that me away from Earth isn’t really me, and so that’s true for you.

ExtremeTech: What do you think is the next game-changing technology for planetary exploration?

Adam: I think the next game-changing technology for planetary exploration, which may not sound too whiz-bang, is the utilization of commercial, off-the-shelf consumer electronics. Here is an illustrative example although a preposterous one. Imagine 10 iPhones sitting in a box. They are not radiation-hardened, but they vote. A processor asks them all the same question and takes a voted result. The ones that have gotten gorked by a cosmic ray running through the neighborhood or a little local radiation as we approach Jupiter are just counted in the voting scheme. We do this all the time with certain things like, for instance, a Boeing 777 has got three computers and they do triple loading arrangements so that if one computer has a hiccup, it doesn’t bring the plane down.

Imagine a set of iPhones in a voting scheme somehow being utilized to overcome the radiation environment. The processor that we have running Perseverance is the same one that ran Curiosity. It’s the same one that was in my Beige box G4 Macintosh in 1999 when I got my Ph.D. When we build the [Perseverance] computer, we do it with a person hand-soldering wires to wires. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and 25-years-ago technology. There’s 10 times the power, 100 times. I haven’t done the math lately on my current iPhone to how much more processing power it has. [Ed note: We checked, and the current iPhone is about 15-20 times faster than the CPU in Perseverance.]

An interplanetary spacecraft’s about a billion bucks. When launch services come down to the order of $ 100 million, the launch is no longer the big price, the price is the building of the thing. Now you say, if I really wanted to reach out and do a lot more exploration, how do I bring the price of the spacecraft down? Well, you can look across the whole gamut, but one of the big places that could be is in the way we control, the way we program, the kinds of ways in which we operate the vehicle. Taking cues from modern technology and applying it to space exploration may allow us to drive down the cost and further increase the value proposition of our robotic exploration of space.

If you want to learn more about NASA’s Perseverance rover, the documentary airs on Nat Geo on Thursday, February 18, at 8 PM ET. That’s the same day Perseverance will touch down in Jezero Crater, which NASA has scheduled for about 4 PM ET.

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Palestinian Authority urges Israel to return to talks focused on 2-state solution

The Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister on Saturday urged Israel to return to talks based on a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ahead of the transition to a new U.S. administration.

Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki’s comments came in a joint statement with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan.

In a news conference after their meeting, al-Malki said that the Palestinian Authority is ready to co-operate with U.S. president-elect Joe Biden on the basis of achieving a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital on territory Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967. Biden will be sworn into office on Jan. 20.

“We are ready for co-operation and dealing with the new U.S. administration, and we are expecting that it would redraw its ties with the state of Palestine,” he said.

The diplomat said co-ordination with Cairo and Amman is a “centre point” that would establish a “starting point” in dealing with the incoming Biden administration. Egypt and Jordan are close U.S. allies.

In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an international conference early next year to launch a “genuine peace process,” based on United Nations resolutions and past agreements with Israel. The Palestinians urged that the conference be multilateral, since they contend the United States is no longer an honest broker.

Palestinian negotiators have suffered numerous setbacks under the Trump administration and complained about what they say are biased pro-Israel steps from Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sidelined the Palestinian Authority, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, slashed financial assistance for Palestinians and reversed course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The international community considers both areas to be occupied territory, and the Palestinians seek them as part of a future independent state.

WATCH | Some young Palestinians see no end to the Israeli occupation:

The dream of a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears in retreat, in large part because of the failure of the international community to insist upon it. 9:47

Israel annexed East Jerusalem and considers it part of its capital — a step that is not internationally recognized.

It has also built a far-flung network of settlements that house nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem since their capture in 1967.

The Palestinians want both territories for their future state and view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace — a position with wide international support.

Security co-ordination

Al-Malki also said they have returned to security co-ordination with Israel, after Israeli authorities sent a “message, for the first time, that they are abiding to all agreements” made with the Palestinians.

In May, Abbas, the Palestinian president, announced that the Palestinian Authority would cut ties with Israel, including security co-ordination, following Israel’s pledge to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

In a statement following their meeting, the three foreign ministers said they would work to rally international support against Israel’s “illegitimate measures,” which include settlement expansion, demolishing dozens of Palestinian homes and seizing their land.

“These are illegitimate Israeli actions on the ground that affect all chances to reach a comprehensive peace process that can only happen by the two-state solution,” Safadi, Jordan’s top diplomat, told the news conference.

The ministers said in their statement that Jerusalem’s status should be resolved in the negotiations, calling for Israel “as the occupying power, to stop all violations that target the Arab, Islamic and Christian identity of Jerusalem and its sanctuaries.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also met with the Jordanian and Palestinian ministers, according to his office.

WATCH | Israel signs agreement with Bahrain, U.A.E. to normalize relations:

A historic Middle East agreement has been signed at the White House, after U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker a deal for Israel to normalize relations with both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 1:58

He said in a statement that Egypt has been working toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “taking into account the regional and international changes.”

He was apparently referring to the election of Biden as the U.S. president and the normalization deals between Israel and four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Those deals, crafted by the Trump administration, dealt another heavy setback for Palestinians.

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Post-Brexit trade talks to continue with 2 sides still ‘far apart,’ U.K. leader says

Throwing overboard Sunday’s self-imposed deadline, the European Union and Britain said they will “go the extra mile” to clinch a post-Brexit trade agreement that would avert New Year’s chaos and cost for cross-border commerce.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had set Sunday as the deadline for a breakthrough or breakdown in negotiations. But they stepped back from the brink because there was too much at stake not to make an ultimate push.

“Despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations and despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over, we both think it is responsible at this point in time to go the extra mile,” von der Leyen said.

The negotiators were continuing to talk in Brussels at EU headquarters.

“I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things, but where there is life, there’s hope, we’re going to keep talking to see what we can do. The U.K. certainly won’t be walking away from the talks,” Johnson told reporters.

EU won’t reach deal ‘at any price’

European Council President Charles Michel immediately welcomed the development and said “we should do everything to make a deal possible,” but warned there could be a deal “at any price, no. What we want is a good deal, a deal that respects these principles of economic fair play and, also, these principles of governance.”

With less than three weeks until the U.K.’s final split from the EU, key aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain unresolved.

Progress came after months of tense and often testy negotiations that gradually whittled differences down to three key issues: fair-competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes and fishing rights.

It has been four and a half years since Britons voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU and — in the words of the Brexiteers’ slogan — “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders and laws.

It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures on Jan. 31. Disentangling economies that have become closely entwined as part of the EU’s single market for goods and services took even longer.

New year will bring changes

The U.K. has remained part of the single market and customs union during an 11-month post-Brexit transition period. That means so far, many people will have noticed little impact from Brexit.

On Jan. 1, it will feel real. New Year’s Day will bring huge changes, even with a deal. No longer will goods and people be able to move between the U.K. and its continental neighbours.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Sunday said he believed a post-Brexit trade deal could be reached and that both sides wanted one, but that negotiations really needed to be finalized in the next few days. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

Exporters and importers face customs declarations, goods checks and other obstacles. EU nationals will no longer be able to live and work in Britain without a visa — though that doesn’t apply to the more than 3 million already there — and Britons can no longer automatically work or retire in the EU.

There are still unanswered questions about huge areas, including security co-operation between the U.K. and the bloc and access to the EU market for Britain’s huge financial services sector.

WTO terms would apply without a deal

Without a deal the U.K. will trade with the bloc on World Trade Organization terms, with all the tariffs and barriers that would bring.

The U.K. government has acknowledged a chaotic exit is likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foodstuff. Tariffs will be applied to many U.K. goods, including 10 per cent on cars and more than 40 per cent on lamb.

Still, Johnson says the U.K. will “prosper mightily” on those terms.

To jumpstart the flagging talks, negotiators have imposed several deadlines, but none have brought the sides closer together on the issues of fair trading standards, legal oversight of any deal and the rights of EU fishermen to go into U.K. waters.

WATCH | Johnson lays out negotiating position ahead of EU trade talks earlier this year:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson lays out negotiating position ahead of EU trade talks 1:21

While both sides want a deal on the terms of a new relationship, they have fundamentally different views of what it entails. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep, so is demanding strict “level playing field” guarantees in exchange for access to its markets.

The U.K. government claims the EU is trying to bind Britain to the bloc’s rules and regulations indefinitely, rather than treating it as an independent nation.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said a no-deal Brexit would be a “double whammy” for economies already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is clear when you do a trade deal that you are a sovereign nation; they are made to manage interdependence,” she told Sky News. “The U.K. and the European Union are interdependent so let’s do a deal which reflects the need to manage this interdependence.”

Speculation about patrolling U.K. waters

Britain’s belligerent tabloid press urged Johnson to stand firm, and floated the prospect of Royal Navy vessels patrolling U.K. waters against intruding European vessels.

But others, in Britain and across the EU, urged the two sides to keep talking.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, whose economy is more entwined with Britain’s than any other EU state, said he “fervently” hoped the talks wouldn’t end Sunday.

“It is absolutely imperative that both sides continue to engage and both sides continue to negotiate to avoid a no-deal,” Martin told the BBC. “A no-deal would be very bad for all of us.

“Even at the 11th hour, the capacity in my view exists for the United Kingdom and the European Union to conclude a deal that is in all our interests.”

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‘Strong possibility’ post-Brexit trade talks with EU will fail, says U.K. PM

With a chaotic and costly no-deal Brexit only three weeks away, leaders of both the European Union and United Kingdom saw an ever likelier collapse of trade talks, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even spoke of a “strong possibility” of failure.

Both sides told their citizens to brace for a New Year’s shock, as trade between the U.K. and the 27-member bloc could face its biggest upheaval in almost a half century.

Johnson’s gloomy comments came as negotiators sought to find a belated breakthrough in technical talks, where their leaders failed three times in political discussions over the past week.

Facing a Sunday deadline set after inconclusive talks between EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Johnson Wednesday night, both sides realized their drawn-out four-year divorce might well end on bad terms.

“I do think we need to be very, very clear, there is now a strong possibility — a strong possibility — that we will have a solution that is much more like an Australian relationship with the EU,” Johnson said, using his phrasing for a no-deal exit.

WATCH | ‘We want a trade deal similar to Canada’s,’ Johnson says:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson lays out negotiating position ahead of EU trade talks 1:21

Australia does not have a free trade deal with the EU.

“That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” Johnson added.

On the EU side, reactions were equally pessimistic.

“I am a bit more gloomy today, as far as I can hear,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said at a EU summit where von der Leyen briefed the 27 leaders on her unsuccessful dinner with Johnson.

“She was not really confident that all difficulties could be resolved,” said David Sassoli, president of the EU parliament that will have to approve any deal brokered.

Contingency measures

A cliff-edge departure would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and cost tens of billions of dollars in commerce.

To prepare for a sudden exit on Jan. 1, the EU on Thursday proposed four contingency measures to make sure that at least air and road traffic would continue as smoothly as possible between both sides for the next six months.

It also proposed that fishermen should still have access to each other’s waters for up to a year, to limit the commercial damage of a no-deal split. The plans depend on the U.K. offering similar initiatives.

The move was indicative of how the EU saw a bad breakup as ever more realistic.

Drivers uses the Dublin Port motorway tunnel system, which connects Dublin Port in the southern Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, on Thursday. This border has been one of the main issues facing Brexit negotiators, with cross-border traffic being a continuing issue in the event of a no-deal Brexit. (Brian Lawless/PA/AP)

Johnson warned that “yes, now is the time for the public and businesses to get ready for Jan. 1, because, believe me, there’s going to be change either way.”

For months now, trade talks have faltered on Britain’s insistence that as a sovereign nation it must not be bound indefinitely to EU rules and regulations — even if it wants to export freely to the bloc.

That same steadfastness has marked the EU in preserving its cherished single market and seeking guarantees against a low-regulation neighbour that would be able to undercut its businesses.

‘You can never say never entirely’

After Johnson’s midnight return to London, reactions were equally dim there.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Sunday deadline was a “moment of finality” — though he added “you can never say never entirely.”

In four years of talks on the U.K.’s departure terms and a future trade relationship, such self-imposed deadlines have been broken time and again since Britain voted to leave the EU.

WATCH | Highlights from the multi-year Brexit campaign:

After years of campaigning, infighting and elections, Brexit is now a reality in the U.K. and Europe. 7:22

Jan. 1 though is different, since the U.K, has made the 11-month transition time since its Jan. 31, 2020 official departure legally binding.

“There are big ideological, substantive and policy gaps that need to be bridged,” said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director for the Eurasia Group. “They’re so far apart and the time is so limited now.”

A no-deal split would bring tariffs and other barriers that would hurt both sides, although most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit because the U.K. does almost half of its trade with the bloc.

Months of trade talks have failed to bridge the gaps on three issues — fishing rights, fair-competition rules and the governance of future disputes.

While both sides want a deal, they have fundamentally different views of what it entails.

The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep — hence the demand for strict “level playing field” guarantees in exchange for access to its markets.

“I still hope that we will find a solution but it’s half-half,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, before adding: “I prefer no deal than a bad deal.”

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India’s farmers vow to intensify protests against reforms as talks fail to make progress

The Indian government and protesting farmers were unable to break their deadlock in talks on Saturday, with the farmers saying they will intensify their demonstrations against new agriculture laws and continue blocking key highways on the outskirts of the capital.

Protest leaders rejected the government’s offer to amend some contentious provisions of the new farm laws, which deregulate crop pricing, and stuck to the demand for total repeal.

The two sides will meet for further discussions on Wednesday.

Thousands of farmers are protesting reforms that they say could devastate crop prices and reduce their earnings. They have blocked highways on the outskirts of New Delhi for the last 10 days.

The farmers say the laws will lead the government to stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and result in exploitation by corporations that will push down prices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government insists the reforms will benefit farmers. It says they will allow farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment. But farmers say they were never consulted.

Modi says the changes will allow farmers to set their own prices and sell their crops to private businesses. Until now, Indian farmers have sold their crops directly to the government at guaranteed prices.

5th round of talks

Saturday’s talks between Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and 35 farmer leaders were the fifth since the laws were passed in September.

Halfway through the talks, farmer leaders held placards asking the government to answer “yes” or “no” to their demand for repealing new farm laws.

The farmers are camping along at least five major highways on the outskirts of the capital and have said they won’t leave until the government rolls back the laws.

Farm leaders arrive to attend a meeting with government representatives in New Delhi on Saturday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The protesting farmers on Saturday also announced a nationwide strike for Tuesday. They said they would intensify their agitation and occupy toll plazas across the country on the strike day if the government didn’t abolish the laws.

Farmers have been protesting the laws for nearly two months in Punjab and Haryana states. The situation escalated last week when tens of thousands marched to New Delhi, where they clashed with police.

The laws add to already existing resentment from farmers, who often complain of being ignored by the government in their push for better crop prices, additional loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.

Farmers burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Amritsar on Saturday. (Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images)

With nearly 60 per cent of the Indian population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, the growing farmer rebellion has rattled Modi’s administration and allies.

Modi and his leaders have also tried to allay farmers’ fears about the new laws while also dismissing their concerns. Some of his party leaders have called the farmers “misguided” and “anti-national,” a label often given to those who criticize Modi or his policies.

Many opposition party leaders, activists and even some allies of Modi’s party have called the laws anti-farmer and expressed support for those protesting.

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EU trade talks with Britain at ‘difficult’ point, expected to resume later Friday

British and EU trade talks are expected to resume later on Friday after negotiators took a break, a British government source said, following reports they had broken up for the day.

Earlier Friday, Britain’s business minister said the talks are at a “difficult” point, as British officials poured cold water on hopes of an imminent breakthrough — and France said it could veto any agreement it didn’t like.

U.K. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said Britain was “committed to reaching an agreement.”

“But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There’s no denying that,” he told the BBC. “There are a number of tricky issues that still have to be resolved.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, his British counterpart David Frost and their teams remained locked in talks in a London conference centre Friday after a week of late-night sessions fuelled by deliveries of sandwiches and pizza. 

U.K. officials sought to dampen hopes of an imminent deal, briefing media outlets that the EU had set back negotiations by making last-minute demands — an allegation the bloc denies.

Seeking deal for new year

The U.K. left the EU early this year, but remains part of the 27-nation bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides try to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect Jan. 1. Any deal must be approved by lawmakers in Britain and the EU before year’s end.

An electronic billboard in London displays a British government information message on Friday advising businesses to prepare for Brexit. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Talks have dragged on as one deadline after another has slipped by. First, the goal was a deal by October, then by mid-November. On Sunday, Britain said the negotiations were in their final week.

European Council President Charles Michel noted that it wasn’t the first time that deadlines had slipped.

“We will see what will happen in the next days,” he said in Brussels. “But the end of December is the end of December and we know that after the 31st of December we have the 1st of January, and we know that we need to have clarity as soon as possible.”

A trade deal will allow goods to move between Britain and the EU without tariffs or quotas after the end of this year, though there would still be new costs and red tape for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.

If there is no deal, New Year’s Day will bring huge disruption, with the overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to U.K.-EU trade. That will hurt both sides, but the burden will fall most heavily on Britain, which does almost half its trade with the EU.

Months of tense negotiations have produced agreement on a swath of issues, but serious differences remain over the “level playing field” — the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the bloc — and how future disputes are resolved. That’s key for the EU, which fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.

Fish factor

But the U.K. government, which sees Brexit as all about “taking back control” from Brussels, is resisting curbs on its freedom to set future economic policies.

Another sticking point is fish, a small part of the economy with an outsized symbolic importance for Europe’s maritime nations. EU countries want their boats to be able to keep fishing in British waters, while the U.K. insists it must control access and quotas.

Fishing is especially important to France, which is seen by many on the U.K. side as the EU nation most resistant to compromise.

“If there was to be an agreement and it was not good … we would oppose it,” Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister in charge of European Affairs, told Europe 1 radio. “France, like all its (EU) partners, has a veto right.”

If there is no weekend breakthrough, next week will bring more complications. On Monday, Britain’s House of Commons will vote on a bill that gives Britain the power to breach parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement it struck with the EU last year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government acknowledges that the Internal Market Bill breaches international law, and the legislation has been condemned by the EU, U.S. president-elect Joe Biden and scores of British lawmakers, including many from Johnson’s own Conservative Party.

The House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, removed the law-breaking clauses from the legislation last month, but Johnson’s government says it will ask lawmakers to reinsert them.

That would further sour the talks, demolishing any goodwill that remains between the two sides.

German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert stressed that EU nations wanted a deal, “but not at any cost.”

“And of course we must also prepare for all scenarios, including for the possibility that there won’t be an agreement,” he said.

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Indian farmers reject talks with government amid blockades, furor over agriculture legislation

Protesting farmers on Sunday rejected the Indian government’s offer to hold immediate talks if they ended their blockades of key highways as they seek the scrapping of legislation they say could devastate crop prices.

The thousands of farmers will continue camping out on highways in Punjab and Haryana states until three new agriculture laws are withdrawn, Jaskaran Singh, a leader of the Kisan Union, or Farmers’ Union, told reporters.

The farmers say the laws could cause the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices and result in their exploitation by corporations that would buy their crops cheaply.

The government says the legislation brings about much needed reform agriculture that will allow farmers the freedom to market their produce and boost production through private investment.

“These reforms have not only served to unshackle our farmers but also given them new rights and opportunities,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Sunday.

Farmers hold a meeting at the Delhi-Haryana state border on Sunday. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

On Friday, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar offered to hold talks with the farmers’ representatives on Dec. 3.

That followed a day of clashes with police, who used tear gas, water cannons and baton charges to push them back as they tried to enter New Delhi. 

The latest offer for talks was made by Home Minister Amit Shah on Saturday.

But he said the farmers would have to shift their protests to a government-designated venue in New Delhi and stop blocking the highways.

A farmer checks his mobile phone during a blockade at the Delhi-Haryana state border on Sunday. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

Singh, the farmer’s representative, said he doubted the government really wanted to hold talks.

“We want the farm laws to be scrapped, that’s all,” he said.

Singh said more farmers would be joining the protest and blocking national highways in other states as well.

Decreasing economic clout

Farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of India, where agriculture supports more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

But farmers have also seen their economic clout diminish over the last three decades.

Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now produce only 15 per cent of gross domestic product, which is valued at $ 2.9 trillion US a year.

Farmers often complain of being ignored and hold frequent protests to demand better crop prices, more loan waivers and irrigation systems to guarantee water during dry spells.

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Brexit talks suspended after EU negotiator tests positive for COVID-19

As if the Brexit trade negotiations were not tortuous enough, the coronavirus added a twist at a crucial stage on Thursday when top-level talks had to be suspended because an EU negotiator tested positive for COVID-19.

It added uncertainty to the negotiations as a deadline looms ever closer and both sides are still divided on three key issues.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that together with his U.K. counterpart, David Frost, “we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period.” Talks among lower-ranking officials will continue in the meantime.

Any long suspension of talks will make it tougher for the negotiators to clinch a deal ahead of Jan. 1, when the existing trade agreements between the EU and Britain expire.

“We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations. We have been, and will continue to, act in line with public health guidelines and to ensure the health and welfare of our teams,” the British government said in a statement.

Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, centre, removes a face mask in Brussels on Monday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

The virus, which has been so brutal for people across the EU and U.K., did not spare the negotiations either. Barnier tested positive in March and Frost self-isolated that same month after developing coronavirus symptoms.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized in April and is currently back in coronavirus quarantine until next Thursday.

Deadline looms

Time is running out as the EU will need about four weeks to complete the approval process of any deal that is agreed upon.

Only on Wednesday a top European Union official said that trade talks with the United Kingdom still face “substantial work” that might spill over into next week.

The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, but a transition period when EU rules apply to trade and other issues runs until the end of December. Both sides had hoped to get a trade deal by then to protect hundreds of thousands of jobs and businesses that could suffer if Brexit leads to a sharp end to existing trade relations.

Talks have proven exceptionally difficult, with the two sides refusing to budge on three key issues — fisheries, how to check compliance of the deal and standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.

WATCH | Highlights from the multi-year Brexit campaign:

After years of campaigning, infighting and elections, Brexit is now a reality in the U.K. and Europe. 7:22

The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to retain access to the EU’s lucrative markets, much like any EU country, without agreeing to follow its rules.

The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards, and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.

Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state.

If there is no deal, businesses on both sides of the English Channel will face tariffs and other barriers to trade starting on Jan. 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the U.K., whose economy is already reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.

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