March 13th, 2012
11:28 AM ET

Afghanistan massacre: A search for answers as questions arise, anger flares

A U.S. soldier is accused of shooting nine children, three women and four men in a house-to-house rampage in villages near his combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on Sunday.

The incident has sent ripples across the U.S. and the world, sparking threats of revenge from the Taliban, concern about the political implications of the attack and outrage from villagers.

There are more questions than answers around this horrific attack: What exactly happened when the soldier entered those villages Sunday? Who was the soldier behind this attack? Why did he do it? What are the political ramifications of this attack? And how will it affect the goal of peace in Afghanistan and future U.S. relations with the country?

How much do we know about what happened?

The shootings are believed to have begun between 2 and 3 a.m. Sunday in Panjwai district in Afghanistan's Kandahar province when the soldier went from house to house opening fire, according to officials and witnesses from the village.

"One guy came in and pulled a boy from his sleep, and he shot him in this doorway," one mother in the village told CNN. "Then they came back inside the room and put a gun in the mouth of one child and stomped on another child."

While investigators try to figure out exactly what happened, villagers say that the evidence that remains from the shooting paints a grisly picture. Shell casings were strewn across the streets. A dead toddler with a blood-stained face was lying sandwiched between two other dead men in the back of a pickup truck. In another truck, not far away, a blanket covered the charred bodies of two more victims.

A local minister told CNN that one family alone lost 11 members during the shooting spree.

"Look at this. The bodies - they all belong to one family," a villager cried.

While the bodies are mostly now covered or have been removed, the reminders of what happened literally still stain the village.

The floors and the walls of several homes in this area are splattered with the blood of those ambushed during the early morning attack.

The attack has shaken residents of the area in the western part of Kandahar, which is known to have a strong Taliban presence. Villagers there told CNN they are enraged. Residents say they moved back to the village because people on the nearby military base had said it was safe to return home, and that nobody would bother them.

Now, men openly weep in the street. Dreams of peace are now replaced with much of sorrow, and many people are crying and trying, through tears, to come to terms with what happened in Panjwai. 

Who is the soldier accused in the shooting?

Details about the soldier are beginning to emerge, but they are sparse. So far, it's known that he was a qualified infantry sniper, according to a senior U.S. Department of Defense official. 

The unidentified suspect served three tours of duty in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan, said Gen. John Allen, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. A U.S. military official, who asked not to be named because he was talking about an ongoing investigation, said the suspect is an Army staff sergeant who arrived in Afghanistan in January.

During the suspect's last deployment, in 2010, he was riding in a vehicle that rolled over in an accident, according to a senior Defense Department official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. The sergeant was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after the crash but was found fit for duty after treatment, the official said.

Traumatic brain injury has become one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He had been stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a sprawling military installation between Tacoma and Olympia, Washington. A handful of soldiers from the base have been involved in violent incidents in the past few years, including four soldiers convicted of killing Afghan civilians in 2010 as part of a "kill squad." Also in 2010, three other soldiers "suffered dangerous public mental breakdowns" after returning from Afghanistan, with two of them shot to death by police, according to the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.

The suspect's family has been moved to that base for their safety, an official said.

In Sunday's incident, after an Afghan soldier alerted the U.S. military at the outpost of the soldier's initial departure, the U.S. military put up an aircraft to search for him. Soon after, Afghan civilians came to the gate carrying wounded civilians, the first indication the military had of the shooting. When the soldier turned himself over to the search party, he immediately invoked his right not to speak. He has been moved to Kandahar and put in pretrial confinement, a congressional source told CNN.

The soldier could face the death penalty, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who spoke to reporters as he flew to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan for high-level talks Tuesday.

What are the security concerns after the attacks?

There are fears that Sunday's killings could reignite the anger that led to deadly riots directed at international forces last month over the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops. That was one of a string of incidents involving American forces that have recently strained ties between the United States and Afghanistan.

The Taliban has already warned there will be reprisals, perhaps violent ones. Members of parliament in Kabul have decided to close down the parliament in protest of the killings. Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets Tuesday to protest the killings as the Taliban threatened to behead "Americans anywhere in the country."

There is a lot of anger brewing in the village and across the country. There's a lot of speculation that this plays into the hands of the divisive Taliban, which is trying to say, "Look, you can't really trust these coalition forces who claim to be here to help you," said CNN's Sara Sidner, who has spoken to villagers.

The U.S. government, NATO and Afghan officials are looking into this. But the real concern for Americans is that there are a lot of people asking for swift justice and wanting the person who perpetrated this crime to be tried in Afghanistan.

And that's why some U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are tightening security to protect against retaliation. Some of the precautions were put in place after the Quran burning incident, a senior defense official tells CNN.

The measures include adding a second U.S. soldier to watchtowers, where before there was one American and one Afghan on watch. American and Afghan forces live together on many of the smaller bases and outposts, and on some of these, the U.S. has instituted a 24-hour guard for barracks.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, author of "Afghanistan Journal: Selections from" and a former civilian cultural adviser for the U.S. Army. He said that while the shooting is horrific, it isn't surprising.

"Sunday's mass murder is not a new outrage for Afghanistan," Foust wrote in a column for CNN. "While the deliberate killing of civilians is (thankfully) rare, many Afghans do not distinguish between accidental and deliberate civilian death."

He added that the event is not game-changing and that many residents aren't surprised when the U.S. kills civilians.

What are the political ramifications? Does this change the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

Most people agree that this incident will again strain ties between the Afghan government and the United States.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the killing of Afghan civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, "outrageous" and "unacceptable," and said he is "heartbroken" over the incident.

"The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered," Obama said in a statement to reporters at the White House. He said he directed the Pentagon to "spare no effort in conducting a full investigation" of what happened, and pledged that "we will follow the facts wherever they lead us."

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said this is unforgivable and an act of terror, in his words. He also expressed his condolences to the families of the Panjwai incident in Kandahar saying "the incident was cruel and an invasion that caused great pain for the people of Afghanistan."

The incident also calls into question the chances for stability as the U.S.-led military mission shifts security responsibility to Afghan forces in coming months. Combined with other recent events that sparked anger and distrust between the Afghan and U.S. governments, this shooting may make things even more difficult.

Analysts and U.S. officials said Monday they believe the transition under way - which seeks to end the American-led military mission in 2014 - will remain on track, though the process may be more difficult.

"There is still no better option, and the Afghans still aren't ready to handle their problems without us, and I think they know that," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said in an e-mail to CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, reacted to Sunday's shooting by adding to calls for bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said the entire Afghanistan mission needs to be reassessed.

The Obama administration insisted Monday that the civilian killings, while tragic and horrific, would not change the goals or timing of the U.S. strategy to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and turn over security responsibility to Afghan forces.

"This is a challenging time, there's no question," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. "I do not believe that this incident will change the timetable of a strategy that was designed and is being implemented to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces."

So what now? Analysts say time to evaluate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corporation research organization, said the Sunday incident "certainly adds to tension between the U.S. and the Afghans, but I don't believe this is a tipping point."

Jones said news of the attack was sure to travel quickly throughout Afghanistan, spread by mullahs in mosques, word of mouth and radio.

The government will probably depict the incident as the latest of many atrocities by both sides, noting Taliban killings of civilians, while the Taliban will try to portray it as another example of U .S. aggression, Jones added.

Many analysts say the first step toward any progress is going to be taking a hard look at the policy in Afghanistan.

Foust says there is a larger problem with the U.S.-Afghan relations, saying "the U.S. is fighting one war while the insurgency is fighting a very different one."

"Put simply, the U.S. never put in place the strategic and political framework to make much headway in Afghanistan," he wrote. "Despite the renewed push for negotiations with the Taliban, there is no political strategy for the country. There is no end state for the war, either - right now, the plan is to draw down to about 20,000 troops or so - similar to troop levels in 2008 - and stay that way for the indefinite future. That's not a strategy, and it's not a plan."

Jeremi Suri, a Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a column for CNN that said the U.S. has a "self-defeating cycle in Afghanistan" and U.S. leaders have failed to set and pursue achievable objectives there. Until those are made, and carried out, Suri says, no real progress can be made and opportunities for increasing violence will remain.

"The American soldiers in Afghanistan are fighting a war against an elusive enemy amidst a population that is increasingly resistant to American demands for assistance," Suri wrote. "Afghan citizens know that the United States is planning to leave soon, and they sense that the Americans they meet care more about an "exit strategy" than the welfare of their society. Afghan intransigence furthers the frustration and resentment among American soldiers, fueling violent behavior directed at innocent civilians."

- CNN's Sara Sidner, Chris Lawrence and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

soundoff (405 Responses)
  1. logic

    just leave the country like you said you were going to. this is the most meaningless war ever, it's only making things worse, especially with nutjob soldiers who shouldn't be cleared to have guns after a "traumatic brain injury"

    March 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mdbill

    just leave! freaking leave the middle east and let it go. if they crank up some more terrorist camps then bomb the he!! out of them. no more boots on the ground. occupations never work unless you are willing to act like nazis while you're there, and america hasn't got the stomach for that (thank God). any presidential candidate, congressional candidate, senatorial candidate.... that gets us out and keeps us out of the middle east gets my serious consideration

    March 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • notbobslc

      There is only one candidate that talks about and is prepare to take action on ending the worthless wars and reigning in our out of control military – any guesses at who that presidential candidate might be ?

      March 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Josie

    Funny how the Taliban forgets to mention all the crimes they themselves have done to their citizens, the stonings, ect. Oh that's right, it's within their religious it makes it ok for them to do that. Though Afgahn does seem to be a worthless battle, there are improvements over there. So, I guess we will see what the Taliban (maybe with help from Al Quida) can do to us. People wake up, we are at war. We have sleeper cells in the United States and everywhere else in the world, if they get a chance they can move this and will try to move this to our country. This soldier sounds like he should not have been cleared for battle due to injury, but was. So who is at fault?

    March 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • mdbill

      sleeper cells? really? you still buying those scare tactics? what about WMDs? they probably have those in afghanistan too, don't they? sure you have radical islamists here, and crazy radical neonazi skin heads.... so what? staying where we aren't welcome is just going to fuel more desire by the radicals to attack American soil. enough loss of life, damage and ptsd, get out!

      March 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. RD

    Like Panetta said "war is hell", and there will always be casualties of war and atrocities committed by both sides. Only difference is Us soldiers are there fighting for the freedom of Afghan people, Al Qaeda and Taliban fight only for opression and tyranny. I guess car bombs blowing up civilians is just the norm so Karzai isnt outraged by those deaths nor is Saddam errr I mean Barak Hussein Obama.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Rogue US soldier kills a dozen an a half innocent civilians – the world goes nuts. Afghans or Iraqis kill three dozen innocent civilians a week – it's page six news.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • shakham

      How many times have you read about Afghans or Iraqis killing women and children?

      March 13, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • r-hope

      And whats the point you are making: that it was OK??

      March 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      do they have the person responsible ?

      March 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thumper

      I agree they kill their own women and children on a daily bases.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
    • High Hopes

      Arousing babies from their sleep to put a gun in their mouths, stomping them into the ground? Eight two-year olds and a five year old... and you act like it's justified because of adult terrorists on suicide missions?

      You need your head examined?

      March 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • DevilDog82

      Yeah its really backwards! Iraq was hell. The soldier in question obviously finally cracked. Its easy for people who were never there to slam these kind of events but do yourself a favour and go talk to soldier who's been to Iraq or Afghanistan or what ever war and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of the horrors and anxiety that comes with the terrority. Remember, these guys signed up to fight for their country or were called to a life of military service. The Commander in Chief (The President) says go here and they go, no questions asked. So yes let the soldier who commited this crime be punished but blame the people at the top for not exercising proper measures to avoid this indivdual from being re-deployed due to what has a mental break down.

      March 14, 2012 at 4:49 am | Report abuse |
    • James

      War is Hell doesn't mean you have carte blanche to act with ruthlessness. Policing is Hell does that make it ok for police officers to go off reservation and summarily execute people? Beacuse they been shot at and is risking their life on a regular basis?

      You cannot say "We fight for Freedom" when you massacre innocent people who are NOT combatants. That makes you nothing more than a murderer.

      In your own logic you have justified the atrocities of 9/11. Because they are ALSO fighting for "freedom". In their minds they are fighting for "freedom of [their] religion", "freedom from oppression", and freedom from the "immorality of western societies".

      This is not even including the fact that this very act gives our enemies legitimate support to the claim that "the Americans are nothing more than murderers, who sanctions the killing of the faithful. Who wants to take away your dignity as human beings and murder your wife and children."

      March 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike64

      dont worry they dont show any respect for their wives and children as well and these people have no dignity

      March 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • c'mon_son!

      Mike you're 64, stop.

      March 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • cherry

      mike you are so insensitive..hope nothing will happen to your family..these people are humans too..

      March 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • cherry

      i am a devoted catholic but dont say that if you have mother,wife,kids because these people are also human beings,they have emotions just like is so sad you are so insensitive..just pray to god that nothing will happen to your family ...

      March 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • ES

      Afghans were free before US came there. Taliban was what they wanted. It is not acceptable to invade other countries just because their way of life is not people in the US think is the best. Actully, none of you cared about" freedom" in Afganistan or any other place you won't be able to even point out on the map. It is just rationalization on your part.
      Do you want to bring freedom to Lesot, let's say. Do you know where it is?
      Apparently, US troops are in Iraq also to bring"freedom", which came as afterthought after they couldn't find WMDs and out of control civil war started. What if someone else decides to bring "freedom" to US? US will nuke anyone who dares. There is freedom for you.

      March 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • ES

      That was in reply to RD's post

      > RD
      Like Panetta said "war is hell", and there will always be casualties of war and atrocities committed by both sides. Only difference is Us soldiers are there fighting for the freedom of Afghan people

      March 13, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoJo

      They are fighting to protect the best interest of the United States. Right or wrong doesn't matter. Neither do the Afghan people. It sounds good though.

      March 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Savior

      Afghans where free? Yea the men were the women were free to go out with a male member of the family only and lil girls were free to stay home and not go to school wow women of America your free now for put on you berka and go shopping and don't forget to take your nephew with you or you will be whipped in the street .

      March 13, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @es: as one american, i could give a flip about "freedom" for afghanis or iraqis.

      trust me, it's not americans you have to worry about. it's our government you have to watch. and we know this, man..

      March 13, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • cherry have point of view here,and thats the truth in fact...but in Gods name can people make the world better...please no more wars...just peace...

      March 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • cherry

      yes agree eith you...

      March 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • cherry

      yes definitely agree with you ES..there should be no war and peace only ..

      March 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • c'mon_son!

      RD eerrr stop guessing, u've got to be smarter than that or still a young teenger. Panetta been to war? How about you? Then you must know that this all didn't start in a bar fight @Tun Tavern in Philly. #educated_response &stop all that guessing before that brain burns up:)

      March 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • b

      tun tavern. oooh -rah!

      March 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • ORLY

      Americans are fighting for freedom? I think the rest of the world, the oppressed and the free, want freedom from us americans.

      March 13, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott

      RD...what did barak hussein obama have to do with this you little willie wanna are so clever to say his whole my eyes are open now..he must be a muslim....My god...the best advertisement the democrats have is you make absolutely no sense.....Bet you cant wait til Barac Hussein Obama is elected president again can you r..d

      March 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. musings

    Such a foreseeable reaction. Wait until this soldier comes back and kills his wife and children. He has practice now.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • across12

      He is not coming back, trust me, he is already gone. What a shame for his wife and his kids who have to live the rest of their life in the shadow of the beast.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      No doubt, he's better off dead, than allowing you vultures rehabilitate him.
      As for his kids, they didn't make him what he became. but good point about you loading up.

      March 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      directed @across12

      March 13, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • bluestater

      they might be thinking, "whew, that could of been us"

      March 14, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Dana

      come on musings, he's done. He'll never go home. He may share a cell with Bradley Manning aka Breanna though.

      March 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      Whatever gypsy .

      March 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pete/Ark

      Without doubt, the most inane statement I've seen or heard in years. You have truely gone off the deep end.

      March 13, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • BLah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Perhaps a good GPS could lead him directly to Crawford Ranch!

      March 14, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  6. Haris

    Looks like this soldier is in some trouble now. I see a demotion in his future...

    March 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terry in Florida

      Really? I see an execution by firing squad in his future.

      March 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • notbobslc

      I think your right, he will not get the firing squad, the thin green line will protect him from anything more than time served at Leavenworth!

      March 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. LouAz

    Why is the US Army Sgt an "alleged" shooter, but everyone shot in Syria was shot by an undeniable murderer ?

    March 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Hiruu

    The comments on this link are as sad as the horrible act. Some of you people are seriously sick!

    March 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Indian

    There are 15 civilians got killed by one human!!. there is lot of noice. Big rally with slogans against USA by so called Humans accross the world?
    Terrorists are killing many innocent people accross the world.
    people tavelling Bus, Train and while eating food in the restaurant.


    March 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Cathy Foley

    Four deployments, Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, marital problems..... THE DEATH PENALTY? ARE YOU KIDDING? He should not have been cleared for duty/deployment! This soldier needed help and was sent away again and again and again. The Islamic world may not be known for their compassion, but we certainly. This man needs help. Please do not abandon him now that he really needs the help that he should have gotten.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      I understand Andrea Yeager (the depressed mother of six who drowned her own children one by one) is in solitary for life, in a small cell. No doubt that she is and was mentally ill. But when the crime is this bad, even though someone is "innocent by reason of insanity" there seems to be sense that the community feels violated and must take revenge. Even here. Not just in Afghanistan.

      March 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. @youignantdotcom

    "Olivia said: Ann, I can understand your frustrations...but I do want to say that we cannot help where we are born. I am a American, yet at the same time..I am embarrassed to be one most times. I'm African American....and we are only 12 percent of America's population, Native Americans are like 8 and Asian Americans are around 10. The point I am trying to make is that we face a lot of adversity although we're Americans. Laws are made to benefit the white, and rich. We are along for the ride. you are right, many Americans are a piece of work, especially the dominant race. Just remember that my people have suffered on American soil as well and we continue to struggle for rights and equality. Just because we are Americans don't mean we aren't knwo what I mean?"

    Thats right, you are only 12% of the US population yet its blacks that have the highest unemployment rate, incarceration rates, and murder rates.

    "Laws were made to benefit the white, rich" are you serious? Ever heard of affirmative action? Scholarship programs? welfare? Blacks get just as much if not more than whites, yet keep bitc....hing and acting like slavery was abolished last year.

    " you are right, many Americans are a piece of work, especially the dominant race." LOL I could say the same about blacks...they are a piece of work them blacks, kil...ling each other on the streets for territories. innocent people, Robbing from law abiding citizens. Maybe if you didn't ki..ll each other off in record numbers you would get respect as a race.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • JX

      @ Olivia

      No matter what race you are if you work hard you can achieve greatness. I think this epiphany donned on me when I walked through Chinatown in san Francisco, then I ended up in the black neighborhood. How is it that a man from China with no knowledge of the language can come and flourish and blacks given opportunities on a silver platter cannot achieve? Nothing to blame but yourself

      March 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      Not only that, black people get it from both sides. They are likely to be mistakenly (or willfully) shot by police. And within their communities, if they are poor ones, they may meet with criminal violence. Even Rosa Parks was attacked in her old age. This is the unfinished business of the American dream.

      March 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mexican

    Afghanistan is a feudal society with deep ethnic divisions, religious extremism, and a corrupt government. The West is not going to change that, we need to be out ASAP.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Haris

    Those todlers he killed would have liked some compassion too. I'm pretty sure they had some brain damage too after he stomped on them before shooting them yet he executed them on spot with no trial either.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      And when I look at this long and hard, the more information comes in, I doubt that he was so off his head he couldn't get pleasure out of the hurt he was causing. I'm wondering (since most of the dead are the family of the village elder, who was absent when it happened) whether he was doing this in reprisal for something he imagined the elder caused. I'm just wondering if his motivation was quite coolly to take revenge.

      March 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ian

    Not to sound callous, but Taliban says they will now "kill Americans in revenge". And? Isn't that what they were plan on doing anyways?

    March 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      They are going to have to act locally. All their politics is local, as ours used to be.

      March 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. D

    What answers are they searching for?

    There are very bad people in this world who do terrible things. It happens every single day all over the place. They are pure evil and need to be treated as such.

    May this animal rot in hell.

    March 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
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