New Wave of Executions of Civilians in Mali

Human Rights Watch

The Malian army and armed Islamist groups have allegedly killed at least 107 civilians in central and southwestern Mali since December 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The victims, most allegedly summarily executed, include traders, village chiefs, religious leaders, and children.

Mali’s transitional government should conduct credible and impartial criminal investigations into these alleged killings, of which at least 71 were linked to government forces and 36 to armed Islamist groups, known as jihadists. Both sides should end the abuses and ensure respect for the laws of war, which are applicable to Mali’s armed conflict.

“There has been a dramatic spike in the number of civilians, including suspects, killed by the Malian army and armed Islamist groups,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “This complete disregard for human life, which includes apparent war crimes, should be investigated and those found to be implicated, appropriately punished.”

The authorities should also facilitate independent investigations by Mali’s National Human Rights Commission (La Commission nationale des droits de l’homme, CNDH) and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali.

Since Mali’s current armed conflict began a decade ago, armed Islamist groups, separatist rebels, ethnic militias, and government security forces have killed hundreds of civilians. Most of the killings occurred in central Mali, which since 2015 has been the country’s epicenter of violence, abuse, and displacement. Armed Islamist groups have also killed hundreds of Malian security force members, including 27 soldiers during an attack on Mondoro on March 4, 2022.

While several members of armed Islamist groups have been tried for criminal offenses, almost no one from government or progovernment forces have been investigated, let alone held to account. The violence has displaced over 320,000 people.

From January to March 2022, Human Rights Watch, which has monitored the situation in Mali since 2012, interviewed in person and by telephone 49 people with knowledge of eight incidents, including community leaders, traders, market people, medical personnel, and foreign diplomats. The incidents occurred between December 3, 2021 and early March 2022 in or near the towns, villages, or hamlets of Boudjiguiré, Danguèrè Wotoro, Feto, Nia Ouro, Petaka, Songho, Tonou, and Wouro Gnaga, in Mali’s Ségou, Mopti, and Koulikoro regions.

Local residents said that Islamist fighters shot at a bus taking traders to a market in Bandiagara in early December 2021, killing 32 civilians, including at least 6 children. Many of the victims were burned alive after the bus caught fire. “I found carnage… a scene one cannot imagine,” said a witness. “Most of the dead were terribly burned, making it difficult to know whether they’d perished by gunfire, or because of the fire.”

Malian security forces committed the abuses during counterterrorism operations in response to the growing presence of armed Islamist groups largely linked to Al-Qaeda. Around March 2, soldiers allegedly extrajudicially executed at least 35 suspects whose charred bodies were discovered near Danguèrè Wotoro hamlet in Ségou region. This is the most serious allegation involving government soldiers since 2012.

In Tonou, villagers said that soldiers allegedly summarily executed 14 ethnic Dogon civilians in apparent retaliation for the deaths of two soldiers nearby from an improvised explosive device (IED). “The soldiers dragged two elders in their 80’s and four others to where the mine exploded, and executed them on the spot,” one witness said.

Human Rights Watch on March 4 sent a letter to the Malian government summarizing the findings in this report. In its March 11 response, the general secretary of the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs said that the gendarmerie had opened investigations into the incidents in Tonou and Nia Ouro, which are ongoing. The ministry characterized the allegations of summary executions in Danguèrè Wotoro as “false and of a nature to discredit the FAMA” but said the army high command had nevertheless on March 5 opened an investigation into the incident. The ministry denied that the military was responsible for abuses in Feto, Wouro Gnaga, and Boudjiguiré, but said it was gathering more information on each to determine who was responsible.

All parties to Mali’s armed conflict are bound by international humanitarian law, notably Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, should be prosecuted for war crimes. Malian authorities are also bound by international human rights law, which guarantees due process for criminal suspects. Mali is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Mali since 2012.

The Defense Ministry should suspend military personnel implicated in serious abuses and ensure that gendarme military police, responsible for promoting discipline and safeguarding detainees’ rights, are present in all military operations, Human Rights Watch said.

“Malian judicial and military prosecutors should impartially investigate the alleged abuses by all sides,” Dufka said. “The ICC also has an active investigation into Mali and remains the court of last resort when national authorities are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes.”

For detailed accounts of the attacks, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

Armed Islamist Groups’ Alleged Killings of Civilians

Petaka, January 16, 2022

At about 5 p.m. on January 16, armed Islamist fighters executed four ethnic Dogon men they had forcibly removed from a convoy of traders returning from the market in the town of Douentza in Mopti region. Two witnesses said the fighters targeted the men because of their alleged support of a village defense force.

A witness who participated in the burial identified the four men as Abdou Nouh, 63; Hama Bouka, 65; Nouh Diamgouno; 66; and Moctar Djibo, 40; and said all had been shot in the head. A trader who was in the convoy said that the victims, all residents of nearby Petaka village, appeared to have been singled out for execution:

Around five kilometers from Douentza, between Drimbe and Petaka, a dozen armed men, dressed in boubous [long flowing robes] and a few in camouflage, emerged from the edge of road and forced our convoy of motorized tricycles and another vehicle to stop. The attackers ordered all the men at gunpoint to lie face down on the road. Three of the assailants walked around, studying the traders’ faces, one by one. They ordered four men to lie down on the other side of the road, and then tied their hands behind their backs. They ordered the rest of us to leave. They didn’t ask questions. … they knew who they wanted.

Community leaders said tension between ethnic Peuhl and Dogon communities in Douentza cercle (administrative area) has been high since 2018, when a Dogon militia began operating in the area. Human Rights Watch has previously documented Dogon militiamen’s executions of several Peuhl men after forcibly removing them from public transport vehicles travelling in the same area as the January 16 attack.

Songho, December 3, 2021

Six witnesses described a December 3 armed Islamist group attack on a bus taking traders from Songho to the Bandiagara market, 15 kilometers away. At least 32 villagers died in the attack, many from burns or smoke inhalation after the bus caught fire as the driver, who also died, was attempting to evade the ambush.

A Dogon community elder provided Human Rights Watch with the names of the dead, which included 17 women and 6 children. Villagers who helped bury the dead said 28 people were buried at the scene of the accident, and 4 others, who died after being evacuated, were buried in Songho. All of the victims were ethnic Dogon.

A 30-year-old trader who was wounded in the incident and whose infant child died in the attack said:

Just four kilometers from Songho, a group of heavily armed jihadists jumped out of the bush, waving their guns and yelling “Stop!” The driver slowed, pretending to obey, then maneuvered the vehicle with all his strength to make a U-turn. But another group of jihadists crept out from behind and opened fire on the bus. There was panic, bullets were flying…. I was hit. The driver was hit and slumped over, dead, losing control of the bus, which fell over and burst into flames.

Another passenger said, “the vehicle was heavily loaded with goods, and it crashed on the side of the gas tank, in a grassy area, and with gunfire all around. There was an explosion, ‘boom!’ then crying, and thick black smoke as everything caught fire and people fought to escape.”

Another passenger said that “we removed eight injured passengers, but four quickly succumbed.”

Dogon community leaders from Mopti region said that the bus incident was just the latest attack by armed Islamist groups in the area. In November the insurgents abducted scores of Dogon civilians, many from Dimbal and Sokanka villages, some of whom are still being held. Dogon elders said the abductions were an apparent effort to punish them for their real or perceived support of the Malian army.

Malian Security Forces’ Alleged Extrajudicial Killings and Looting

Human Rights Watch documented alleged Malian security force abuses that occurred within the context of large army operations, including Operations Maliko and Kèlètigui which began in December 2021. Armed Islamists have concentrated their recruitment efforts on the pastoralist Peuhl by exploiting their grievances with the government and other ethnic groups. Most victims of alleged army abuse were ethnic Peuhl, except for those killed in Tonou village, who were ethnic Dogon.

Danguèrè Wotoro, around March 2, 2022

On March 3, villagers discovered at least 35 charred bodies near Danguèrè Wotoro hamlet, about 11 kilometers from Diabaly, Ségou region. Three witnesses who had visited the site told Human Rights Watch that the victims were all men, and that many had been tied and blindfolded, and appeared to have been shot.

Three family members or friends of men detained in security operations in Ségou region in February said they had identified the missing men among the dead. On March 5 the United Nations peacekeeping mission said it was investigating the incident. A Defense Ministry communiqué denied any army involvement in the incident.

One man who had visited the site said:

I saw tire and motorcycle tracks, and the cap of a 20-liter plastic bottle that smelled of fresh gasoline. The bodies were lying in groups, under trees, in the sun. The heads of some looked like they’d been shot; others had holes in the chest. Their clothing was burned, and some had their hands and eyes bound. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t bear staying for very long.

Another witness who had visited the site said:

I counted 34 bodies clumped together, and one more body, about 15 meters away. Another villager at the site told me he had just identified his brother and two friends among the dead. He said the three were animal traders and had been arrested by the army in February. Later that day, after I’d returned to my village, another man I know told me he too had visited the site and had recognized four of his shepherds among the dead.

In February local activists and community elders gave Human Rights Watch lists with the names of about 40 men who had been arrested since January 2022 during military patrols and operations in Ségou region and had subsequently disappeared. One activist investigating the disappearances said that “I’ve spoken with dozens of family members who’ve been searching for their loved ones in the prisons of Ségou, Bamako, and Niono. I fear we now know where they are.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed three men who had been detained in their villages in Ségou region during military operations in January and February and later held in the Diabaly military camp. One man saw soldiers remove about 30 men from the cell during the night, one day before the bodies were discovered. He said:

I was one of 16 traders the army arrested at an animal market in mid-February, and while I was being held in the Diabaly army camp, many other prisoners were brought in. I and many others were beaten terribly by Malian and a few white soldiers speaking a language I’d never heard. … Many of us were tortured. One day, a prisoner managed to escape, which infuriated the soldiers. That night, they [the soldiers] came to the enclosed area where we were being held and said, “This cell is too full; we need to reduce the number of people here or more of you will escape.” I don’t know on what basis people were picked but it seemed like they took the weakest, those with broken arms and legs, those who had given up, ordering them in the trucks. One old man was so weak, he collapsed while approaching the vehicle…and the soldiers just picked him up and threw him in like a sack of rice.

Tonou, January 27, 2022

Nine villagers described the summary executions of 14 Dogon villagers by Malian army soldiers in an apparent retaliation attack. They said that at about 3 p.m., the last vehicle in a convoy of some 25 army vehicles passing through Tonou struck an IED about 500 meters from the village, killing two soldiers and wounding several others. The soldiers then immediately rounded up and executed 14 villagers, including the village chief and a boy. One villager said:

As the convoy rumbled by, people came out to watch, some waving at the soldiers when suddenly, “Boom!” from the north. The last vehicle – a pickup truck with a big, mounted gun – had hit a mine. It was outside the village – the jihadists must have placed it under the cover of night. We had no idea. More people rushed out wondering what happened and if we could help. The soldiers whipped the convoy around, took their dead and wounded, and then went berserk. They were yelling, furious, and started killing people, and setting fire to the village. We never thought we’d fear our own army.

The villagers said the soldiers rounded up the village chief, Sadou Tenbere Goro, and Boureima Agnome Goro, both in their 80s, and four other people, including a teenage boy. One villager said:

After the explosion, several groups of soldiers patrolled through town, killing people. One group went to the chief’s home. We thought the soldiers just wanted to speak with him and another elder there, as is customary when something like this happens, but they ordered the elders to follow them. Along the way, the soldiers ordered four more people they happened on – Hamid, Allaye, and Halidou, all over 50 years old, and Dauda, who was only 16 – and marched them to where the explosion happened. There, they ordered them to lie down and shot each of them in the head. We found them in a line, all executed.

A neighbor of another victim, Soumaila Goro, 53, said: “He was the village baker and lived on the edge of town. The soldiers yelled, ‘You couldn’t even alert us about the mine!’ to which the old man said, ‘The jihadists place their mines at night…how can we alert you when we don’t know ourselves?’ Feeling the soldiers’ anger, he ran into his house, but the soldiers broke down the door and minutes later I heard three shots. Soumaila had been shot in the head, stomach, and a foot. Later, they stole jewelry and burned his motorcycles.”

A villager who helped bury the dead said:

When we saw their [the soldiers’] fury, all of us who could ran for their lives. After returning, I saw 14 people dead: the six executed near the explosion; two on the outskirts of the village; and six others in the village including Sita Goro, a 25-year-old student who had just returned from Cote d’Ivoire; Ali Malick Goro, shot doing his ablution; the baker; a trader named Issaka, who’d been dragged off his motorcycle and shot; and a few others.

Another villager who helped rescue wounded villagers from a burning structure said: “Our houses went up in smoke quickly – they’re surrounded by hay for our animals. From one, we pulled out two older women and an old man, all semi-conscious and with burns. A nurse treated two others including a man who the soldiers had kicked in the face and teeth.”

The witnesses believed that soldiers who later arrived aboard a helicopter to evacuate the dead and wounded soldiers helped stop the killing. “When the helicopter arrived, the soldiers immediately released about ten men, who were held lying face down near the mosque. But the bad was already done.”

Dogon elders said they were shocked by the killings and that the government had failed to publicly acknowledge the incident. “This is not a jihadist village,” said one elder. “The jihadists brought much suffering on us: they’ve stolen hundreds of our animals, forbidden us from farming, and killed village sons who’d formed a self-defense group. We want an investigation so that another blunder like this does not occur.”

The Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch that the national gendarmerie had on February 2 opened an investigation into the Tonou incident.

Feto and Wouro Gnaga, January 14, 2022

Three witnesses described a Malian military operation on January 14 in Feto village and neighboring Wouro Gnaga hamlet, in Niono cercle, Ségou region, where soldiers killed five civilians. Three of the victims appeared to have been shot in the mouth. Two villagers were older people, one of whom was burned to death inside her house after soldiers looted and set homes and shops in the village on fire.

The witnesses said that up to ten “white” soldiers of uncertain nationality, who traveled on motorcycles, took part in the operation and were in the vicinity of the killings, for which the witnesses blamed the Malian army.

Two witnesses described the arrest of three men in Feto who were found dead hours later. A 45-year-old trader said:

While hiding near the bridge at the village exit, I saw soldiers arrest my friend Hamaï Modibo Bah [age 37], tie him with his turban, and put him in a pickup truck. I left my motorcycle and as I rushed by foot back home, I saw four soldiers confront Ousmane Hama Boura [age 55] in front of his house. He rushed inside, but they dragged him out and put him in the pickup with Hamaï. A third person, Allaye Bah [age 33] was also arrested in his house, I didn’t see this, but his wife told me that the soldiers ordered his hands tied and put him in the truck with the other two.

Another witness said:

From my window, I saw a vehicle taking the three men north of the village and minutes later, heard shots, “Taa! Taa! Taa!” I thought, “Oh God, they’re killing them!” Later we found their bodies, about 800 meters in the bush, each had a huge, gaping hole in the back of the neck – so huge you could put your hand into it.… as if they were shot by a gun in their mouths. One had wounds on the side of his face, as if he’d fought having the gun put into his mouth.

One witness described the looting: “Soldiers were breaking down people’s doors, and looting money, bags of rice, and women’s jewelry. From my cousin’s house they took 700,000 CFA [US$1,200]. Is this a professional army?” Another man said, “The soldiers broke into my home, rummaged through my bags, and stole earrings, jewelry, and clothing. I saw them push my neighbor, an older woman in her 60’s, when she tried to stop them from entering her house, severely hurting her hand.”

Another witness said, “I’d hid in the forest during the attack and returned to find 11 motorcycles including mine burned. I saw broken down doors, burned sacks of millet, and bags of fertilizer that emptied out into the river. People were saying they stole animals and poured out our food.”

One witness said a few white soldiers arrived in Feto village “at the end of the attack, after the killing was done. They had different uniforms from the Malian army. They rode motorcycles. I didn’t recognize their language. It wasn’t French. What I can tell you: they are white soldiers, and it was when they arrived that the looting stopped.”

The witnesses said the military operation continued into Wouro Gnaga hamlet, two kilometers east, which they set ablaze and killed Coumba Bah, 84, and Alphaga Bah, 65. The rest of the residents had fled in advance of the operation. A witness said that from a distance of around 700 meters, she saw a convoy of 19 army vehicles and white soldiers on 9 motorcycles. She neither witnessed any killing, nor could she determine what role the white soldiers had in the operation.

She said:

After hearing the gunshots in Feto and hearing that FAMa [Malian army, Forces Armées Maliennes] was looting and killing, everyone took off running except Coumba and Alphaga who were too weak to run. The convoy entered around 9 a.m. and spent two hours. I saw soldiers circling the hamlet, and minutes later saw flames and smoke rising. Some hours later I returned and found Coumba’s charred body in her home. God only knows if the soldiers knew she was there. Alphaga had been shot twice in the chest, near the shoulder, and in both feet. There was no battle – the jihadists were nowhere near that day.

A witness from Feto said:

There are jihadists in this area, but they and their families aren’t stupid…they fled before the attack. We remained. We suffer on account of the jihadists who impose zakat [tax] and forbid us from visiting the graves of our elders, which they say is haram [forbidden]. So why did the army kill us?”

Nia Ouro, January 4, 2022

On January 4, Malian security forces allegedly killed four people and burned and looted civilians’ property during a security operation in Nia Ouro village, Djenné cercle, Mopti region. Witnesses said the bodies were found after the soldiers left. France 24 and RFI also reported on the attack.

Two witnesses said they recognized some of the soldiers involved in the operation. “I saw a convoy of 13 army vehicles leaving Sofara [10 kilometers away] on January 3, in the late afternoon, and the next day when I went to Nia’s market, was stopped by some of the same soldiers,” one witness said.

Another witness said: “After arriving in Nia Ouro on January 3, the soldiers forbade people from talking on their phones so they wouldn’t tell the jihadists they were there. From early morning on January 4, they set up roadblocks, stopping everyone as they entered or left the village.”

A third witness said: “Other soldiers dispersed into the village, arresting men on their way to their fields or to market, or on their way out of the village. Others were taken from their homes. I heard them accusing people of being jihadist accomplices.”

A witness described the detention of two of the four men whose bodies were later found in a shallow grave:

The soldiers ordered us to lie on our stomachs – there were over 10 in my group and another group of arrested men some meters away. The soldiers took all our phones, to see if the jihadists tried to contact us. As we lay there, people’s phones started ringing – word of the operation had spread, and our families were calling to check on us. As each phone rang, a soldier picked it up, asking, “Whose phone is this? Stand up….answer it!” Then they put it on speaker and listened to the conversation. Those whose family asked after them were let go. But two men – Allaye Sadou Diagayete, 50, a marabout [a religious leader], and Issa Alpha Sangaré, 40 – either refused to talk to the person at the other end or disconnected the call. For the soldiers, this was proof that the caller and the men were jihadists. The soldiers beat them, blindfolded them, tied their hands, and put them into their vehicle. They freed the rest of us.

Two witnesses described the killing of one man being held by a second group of soldiers. One said:

I was detained with eight others at a checkpoint manned by five soldiers. The soldiers asked us what religion we practiced. When we said we were Muslims, the officer in charge said, “Lies! You’re all terrorists, you’re the ones mining the roads and attacking us!” At one point, they ordered a group of traders coming into town to get off their motorcycles. When one trader, named Aldjouma Boureima Diagayete, 53, answered his phone without permission, a soldier ordered him to one side. The man said his family was calling him, but the soldiers struck him with his gun butt, and after he fell, just shot him, “baam” in the head! Seeing this, one of the detained men said, “La ilaha illa-Allah [There is no God but Allah, the first phrase of the Islamic declaration of faith or Shahada],” provoking the soldier to threaten to kill him, too. He was one of four men arrested during the operation and later taken to Bamako; all he did was say a prayer for the dead.

Two witnesses said that other soldiers taking part in the operation killed another man, apparently for refusing to stop at a checkpoint: “The soldiers ordered an older man driving a donkey cart on his way out of the village to stop,” a witness said. “I don’t know if he didn’t hear the order, but he kept going, which seemed to startle the soldiers, and they shot him dead.”

Witnesses said that on January 5, villagers found the remains of four men in a shallow grave about a kilometer east of Nia Ouro. They included the two men detained at the checkpoint, both of whom were found blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs; the man killed after he refused to obey the soldiers’ order to stop; and the man killed at the checkpoint.

“A farmer on his way to his field rushed back and told us he’d seen body parts in the sand,” a witness said. “A group of us went to investigate and found four bodies…. We buried them properly, in individual graves.”

The witnesses said soldiers had also burned and looted Nia Ouro village, and badly beat two other residents. “I saw them burning houses, motorcycles, and stealing jewelry and the bracelets of women friends,” a 59-year-old woman said.

A 61-year-old trader said:

I found burned properties including 16 houses, three millet granaries, three motorcycles, and a bicycle. I also saw Allaye Boubou Diawodio, 60, and Baba Diagayete 50, who’d been badly beaten. One told me he’d been dragged out from under his bed and beaten with rifle butts by soldiers. The other had a broken arm. Both were bleeding…it was hard for them to speak or walk. They said the soldiers kept asking where the jihadists were hiding.

The Malian army spokesman said in a January 5 statement that the army had “thwarted another coordinated terrorist action in the Nia Ouro sector,” saying that the forces had destroyed 15 motorcycles, “seen coming from the Sama forest.”

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs said it had on February 8 ordered an investigation into this incident, and on February 22, the national gendarmerie had done its first mission to the village.

Boudjiguiré, December 31, 2021

On December 31 the Malian army carried out a large operation in Boudjiguiré in Koulikoro region, during which soldiers detained and later executed at least 13 men. Several witnesses said they believed the soldiers implicated in the killings were based in Nara, 60 kilometers away, because friends living in Nara had called them the morning of the operation to say that they had seen a large military convoy leaving from their base there and heading east from Nara toward Boudjiguiré.

Community elders said they believed the civilian killings were in retaliation for an attack in the area by armed Islamist groups on December 29 that killed eight soldiers and wounded a dozen more.

“Around 10 a.m., a column of about 30 army vehicles including three trucks passed by, and then a few hours later I saw them leaving town, with one [truck] in the middle with about a dozen men, blindfolded and with their hands bound,” a witness in Boudjiguiré said. “I thought they were taking them to Nara for investigation.”

Another witness said:

The soldiers surrounded the market and arrested people selling their wares or their cattle at market, in front of their houses and shops, and near the mosque. Most were from town, but several were from nearby villages. They included the third deputy mayor and our doctor, after he questioned the soldiers about why they were arresting people. Yes, there are many jihadists in this zone. And a few young people from the village have joined them, but when the army came, they didn’t find any jihadists. The army made a terrible mistake.

The next day villagers found the men buried in a shallow grave near Doloba hamlet, three kilometers from Boudjiguiré. The town elders gave Human Rights Watch a list of the 13 men, ages 25 to 80, who were killed, including Deputy Mayor Hama Lamine Doucouré, 52; El Hadj Sidi, the head of the youth association; and Dr. Modibo Doucouré, a physician.

A villager said:

When we uncovered the shallow grave, I started shaking seeing the doctor’s face; he’d been shot in the head. I also recognized El Hadj Sidi, the youth association president, who’d been shot in the shoulder, hand, and foot. I saw Ibrahim, Sekou, Yamarou, who sells millet, and Dembele, an 80-year-old man who was taken near the mosque. For others, the blindfold was so tight we had to cut it off to see their faces. It was too much… we dug two graves to bury them in.

Villagers said that none of those killed were Islamist fighters. “Yes, a few young people from the area joined the jihadists, but that day, there was no battle and those killed weren’t jihadists,” one said. Other villagers described being threatened by armed Islamist groups. One said:

Last year, they ordered us to grow beards and cut our pants short and pressured us to help them fight the soldiers, who they called “infidels.” They threatened to kill me for questioning their view of Islam. We know the jihadists. Those our army killed were civilians. Besides, the jihadists know well in advance when the army is coming. I’ve personally seen jihadists getting calls on their walkie-talkies warning them of soldiers coming their way.”

Two witnesses said the victims had been falsely identified as “jihadists” by a local man who worked as an army guide and who had disputes with several community members. “This was a case of score settling,” a witness said. “The army fell into his trap.”

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