The Gash Files III: Trapped Tamils Out by Sea in 2009

Michael Roberts

As evident then and as confirmed by subsequent accounts, during the last phase of Eelam War IV from circa December 2008 segments of the corralled Tamil population began to rebel against the privations and dangers they were being subjected to by the LTTE’s grand strategy. While a considerable section of the people remained loyal to the LTTE to the very end,[1] others secured release from their situation through the efforts of international agencies working in cooperation with the LTTE and involving[2] the ICRC acting in concert with the Sri Lankan Navy and the Red Cross.

  Also see Roberts: TPS. Pictorial. Fig. 95 and its details

The ships marshalled by the ICRC brought in essential supplies while also carrying the sick & aged people as well as children released by the LTTE, together with people classified as “caretakers’ or “bystanders,” to safety south to Trincomalee or, latterly, to the shores off Pulmodai where an Indian Field Medical Hospital had been set up. This sea work was under SL Navy supervision. The shipment of people commenced on the 9th February 2009 and, astonishingly, continued till the 9th May 2009 – sometimes even when fighting was taking place on land in close proximity (say in late April).[3]

Lt. Col. Gash happens to have provided his masters in UK with a graphic account of the latter process at the Trincomalee end. That description will be the jewel in the crown at the end of this article, but Gash also provides snippets of data on another parallel process, viz., independent Tamil activity to escape by sea in fishing boats of various sorts.

 Situation Map, 6 January 2009

SLnavy and escape by sea TPS. Pictorial, Fig. 98a TPS ESSAYS COVER

Escape by Sea

This has been a neglected field though we (including this author) should have awakened to its importance by a photograph posted on Frontline that displayed a flotilla of small boats under SL Navy ‘tutelage.’[4] Gash provides a sliver of information on this dimension of the story in a despatch dated 7th April 2009. After detailing figures (7,566) for those “processed by the SLN at Trincomalee,” he notes: Additionally a total of 4136 IDPs have been received by the SLN having made their own way from the NFZ in small boats:

  • Jan 09 191 (6 per day)
  • Feb 09 289 (10 per day)
  • March 09 2629 (85 per day)
  • April 09 241 (60 per day)”

The total of 3,398 arising from his figures should not be regarded as the total number of Tamils who took this dangerous route of escape from their ‘imprisonment’ by the LTTE.

It was a threatening and brave route because the SL Navy had mounted a cordon – described by Gash as “a ring of steel”[5] – of several lines of fighting boats cordoning off the north west corner of the Vanni to which rump Thamililam had been reduced as a stub of 44 sq. km by 9 March 2009 — a declining area that eventually became about 16 sq km in mid-April 2009.[6] Since the escapee boats would have mostly set off at night, it is likely that some were fired at by the SL Navy – especially if they were heading north because that would be the route to India for Tiger fighters seeking safety. Indeed, we know that the Sea Tiger Commander Soosai’s wife and family members were apprehended on the night of 14th May 2009 when their party of twelve was shot at and captured by SL Navy detachments at sea.[7]

One report dated 21st April 2009 states that up to that point the SLN had “rescued 2167 fleeing in 103 boats. A total of 1,965 persons in 92 boats has been escorted into Point Pedro while another 202 persons in 11 boats have been safely brought ashore at Pulmudai.”[8] Subsequent IDP data indicate that there were 10,196 IDPS in an assortment of camps in the Jaffna Peninsula by 31 May 2009, so a further line of inquiry should chart the routes by which these persons got there.

The figures suggest that escapees by sea chose to head north rather than south.  The Jaffna heartland beckoned. Most of the sea journeys would have been nocturnal enterprises and demanded some personnel with seafaring expertise and possibly some collusion from Tiger functionaries and/or Thamilīlam officials.

Background: Receiving the IDPs

I need to set the context and provide readers with background information on what is usually referred to as the IDP problem or the reception of the “Internally Displaced People” – in this instance those who survived the last phase of Eelam War IV and found themselves classified as either IDP or Tiger POW in some prison or rehabilitation camp. Virtually all these people were Tamil, though there were a few Sinhalese or Muslims who were the spouses of Tamils

There was only a trickle of people who got away on foot during the last months of 2008 when Paranthan and Kilinochchi were still held by the LTTE. But from January 2009 the outflow increased – at great risk from LTTE shootings, exhaustion, snake-bite and, on one horrendous occasion on 9th February 2009, from an explosion activated by a female suicide bomber who had been inserted into a flock of escaping refugees by the LTTE: killing 29 (ten of these dead being civilians) and wounding 64.[9]

A “Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance” had been set up by the government as early as 14 October 2006 acting in concert with Western Ambassadors and INGOs in order to send essential goods to the people under LTTE rule. Chaired by Mahinda Samarasinghe as Minister for Disaster Management & Human Rights, this body had at least 18 non-state actors, including Robert Blake (as Chairman of Co-Chairs to the Peace Process), the Head of the EU Delegation, an EU representative, the Resident UN Coordinator, and representatives of UNOCHA, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, WFP, FAO, ILO, UNDSS, ECHO ICRC and CHA. This was the body that sent convoys of goods, eleven in all (including that “Convoy 11” in late January 2009 that features so dramatically in The Cage by Gordon Weiss). It is their good work, monies and reach that enabled Dr Shanmugarajah (head of the Medical Department in the areas ruled by the LTTE) to exercise foresight and stockpile essential medical times in the manner he detailed subsequently in his Affidavit (see below). It was also their initiative that led to the ICRC transhipment process as the alternative lifeline for civilians in rump Thamilīlam.

Unsurprisingly, the figures for the total number of IDPS at the end of Eelam War IV vary. One compilation indicated a total of 296.000 Tamil IDPs and I am now assuming that this total includes the 11,800 who were identified as Tigers and detained under tighter security in prisons and/or rehabilitation camps. A significant figure, dated the end of May 2009, presents the following details[10]

IDP camps in the Jaffna Peninsula:           10,916

IDPs at Vavuniya & other sites:          237,057

“Humanitarian Releases”:            27,720

These figures make a total of 275, 693 (which probably does not include the 11,800 or so persons deemed to be LTTE and subject to placement in more secure arenas).

The variation in the figures can be attributed to several processes: (a) death by natural causes or festering war-wounds; and (b) individuals slipping away from the place of internment, especially the vast camps at Manik Farm which had single-stranded barbed wire fences and where the Tamil ‘agencies’ quickly set up escape channels.[11]

To my eyes the category of “humanitarian releases” so early in the day is quite an eye-opener. It suggests strong INGO/NGO influence and liberal government functionaries who were prepared to release the aged and/or ill and perhaps even other categories of people.

Col. Gash’s Observations on the ICRC-SL Navy Operations at the Trincomalee End

Around 11th February Lt. Col Gash and some US diplomats were in Trincomalee visiting the SL Navy. At dinner Commodore Sinniah invited them to observe the arrival of an ICRC ship.[12] The Americans indicated that their protocols did not enable them to accept this kindness.[13] Lt. Col Gash, clearly had no reservation because his despatch of 12th February provides detailed observations. As such, it is a goldmine — one that I present verbatim.

    VERBATIM COPY …… with emphasis in bold being my imposition

Sent: Monday February 16. 2009 4.44 PM

To:    this is blacked out

CC:  also blacked out

Cc: Subject: IDP Reception- Trincomalee, 12 Feb 09 IDP RECEPTION ~ TRINCOMALEE

On Thu evening (12 Feb) I observed the arrival of 400 lDPs by sea to Trincomalee.

The operation started at 06$0 hrs on 12 Feb with the transfer of the IDPs- stretcher cases plus some accompanying family members- to a vessel chartered by the ICRC. The transfer is believed to have been carried out by the l TTE, or at least with their agreement. Observers comment that the standards of boatmanship and discipline were very high during the transfer. All DPs were in possession of “release” passes issued by the LTTE.

After a sea move to Trincomalee: during which patients were stabilised and prioritised by the ICRC, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) took control of the operation. SLN personnel boarded the vessel to continue medical prioritisation and to start the screening process; initially this was profiling by intelligence personnel and metal detector screening of personnel and bags.

From 1930 hrs (12 Feb) to 0300 hrs (13 Feb) the ship~to-shore transfer took place. (I was present 2200-0200 hrs). SLN small boats moved 3-4 stretchers plus their accompanying “bystanders” to a remote beach location within Trincomalee Naval Base. Reception consisted of a linear channel along the beach with the following stages:


*  Physical search of baggage

* Physical (strip) search of the able bodied (separate and well-screened male and female areas)

* Immediate medical care for, the injured (assessment, pain relief, redressing wounds, insertion of IV drips)


  • Reuniting of personnel with baggage.


  • Registration Desk (ICRC had already provided statistics compiled onboard, so this was a quick confirmation) ·


  • Refreshments (tea, water, biscuits) ·


  • Transport (ambulances for the injured to Trincomalee General Hospital, buses for others to St Anthony’s School holding area)

The operation was efficient and effective, but most importantly was carried out with compassion, respect and concern. I am entirely certain that this was genuine- my presence. was not planned and was based on a sudden opportunity; I had free access to the 300m long stretch of beach over a 4 hour period and was able to observe upwards of 200 SLN personnel working extremely hard in difficult conditions. Their high morale was notable; they were enjoying the work and clearly finding it satisfying. There were constant examples of thoughtful assistance ~ looking after babies while mothers were being searched, helping elderly ladies or mothers of babies with their bags, cheerfully offering food etc.

ICRC observers were present at the beach, and the ambulance point was manned by the Sri Lankan Red Cross.

I had a couple of minor criticisms mainly to do with the risks that were being taken; The commander explained that they had tighter security during the first arrival 2 days earlier- more rigorous searches of the injured, more separation of the stages in the process- but that this had taken so long, and had made the lDPs walk further, so that the SLN simplified the operation to avoid distress and exhaustion among the new arrivals. IDPs were having their mobile phones checked but they were then returned to them.

It was notable that this group was injured personnel, elderly or female accompanying family members, and children under 10 years old. The only men of fighting age were missing limbs or otherwise disabled. · ·

1 have attached 3 representative photographs of the many I took.

Comment: …… There is real risk that a suicide bomber could cause mass casualties in the beach environment. I was genuinely surprised how calm the atmosphere was in the aftermath of the suicide bomb at the Vavuniya screening centre, and by how much compassion was being shown. Welfare appeared to be overriding some security considerations. ·



Lt Col

DA Colombo

Reflections: The Pictorial Tale

Lt. Col. Gash’s detailed account cannot be overestimated because it is a relatively unbiased observer’s survey, one that confirms the reports and photographs from GSL circles. Among the latter are the images which were displayed within the SL Navy website, several of which I have previously presented in my work Tamil Person and State. Pictorial (2014: Figs. 96a, b & c and 98b & 98c.). These are, of course, propaganda images. The issue, however, is their veracity and degree of ethnographic reach, Gash’s observations give them ethnographic breadth and depth.

A vital dimension of the work at the SL Navy (and SL Army) checkpoints was the utilization of female sailors and soldiers from auxiliary non-fighting units. Apart from their value and necessity in body-checking female IDPs, one can surmise that they brought a degree of compassion and humaneness that is more pronounced in the female Sri Lankan populace to their work. There can no more heart-warming images than two shots, captured by journalists[14] rather than the SL Navy, of women sailors with IDP infants in their arms. One of these photograph is also significant in inadvertently showing a foreign White woman in the seashore background – obviously an observer from a NGO or embassy.

Further Reflections: Tamil Administrative Capacities

Gash’s observations at Trincomalee on the 9th February refer to the first transfer of released civilians on the 9th February 2009. How many benefited from the whole process over the next eleven weeks? When I dropped in at the ICRC offices in Bambalapitiya in 2011, Sarasi Wijeratne (the Secretary) was genial, but not particularly precise or convincing in the figures she scrabbled to locate.

The best figures are those supplied by a private citizen/engineer in UK who charted the war in some detail.[15] I refer to “Citizen Silva” whose meticulous archival store showed that 31 voyages were undertaken between February and early/mid-May.[16] For eight trips at the start Citizen Silva recovered no details for those evacuated beyond a total figure, viz, 13,794 men, women and children. From the breakdown for the other 23 voyages totalling 10,103, we discover that there were 1,789 injured/sick males and 1,537 injured/sick females. There was a large component of children: 3,471.

This means that there were also adults who were deemed “accompanying caregivers” (or “bystanders”) by the ICRC in its public documents. These bystanders numbered 3,783 in the partial total for which details are provided by Citizen Silva and amounted to 37.4% of the adult medivac cluster. Thus, an interesting issue arises: what happened to these “bystanders” once the sick and wounded were accepted by the Ministry of Health and/or the military and lodged in the hospitals at Pulmoddai, Trincomalee, Padaviya, Vavuniya and Mannar over the weeks that followed?  If they ‘disappeared’ into the womb of local Tamil society, do their numbers turn up in the figures of “disappeared presumed killed by GSL” in the statistics peddled by HR agencies and/or Tamil spokespersons?[17]

No review of the ICRC rescue/release operations is complete without recording and saluting the administrative capacities of the Tamil personnel at the LTTE end, that is, the space of remnant Thamilīlam. It may not be widely known that through Eelam Wars I, II and III the government functionaries in areas controlled by the LTTE as part of its state of Thamilīlam received their salaries and/or pensions from Colombo, that is, from GSL. Though paid by the government in Colombo, the working officials took their instructions for the most part from the LTTE hierarchy and worked alongside and/or under functionaries directly chosen by the Tiger leadership.

Critically, for the people of Thamilīlam, these officials seem to have revealed an administrative capacity of the highest order. One illustration is the measure of forward planning and the details revealed in the lengthy “Affidavit” presented on 12th May 2012 by Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah, the Medical Superintendent in what was Thamilīlam — a truly remarkable document.[18] Another arises from the images in TamilNet that display the activities of the medical auxiliaries dealing with wounded Tamils.[19] A third rests within Dr Susiri Weerasekera’s laudatory appraisal of the doctoring capacities of the female paramedics he encountered and worked with in the Tiger rehabilitation prison camps after the war.[20]

   Situation Map, 7 May 2009

A fourth illustration develops from the capacity shown by the LTTE-run services to continue their functions in late April and early May 2009 after the SL Army had penetrated the Last Redoubt[21] on the 19/20th April and seized control of 3/5th of that area – so that a populace of about 70-90,000, inclusive of Tiger fighters without uniform or in uniform, were crammed into the areas known as Karayamullivaikkal and Vellamullivaikkal. These images display functionaries distributing essential supplies and medical dispensaries at their normal work in open air facilities.[22] Such capacities provide one explanation for the ability of ICRC ships to arrive, drop supplies and collect the sick, aged and others released by the LTTE even during those tense days when Sri Lankan Government forces were about to deliver the coup de grace on the rump LTTE state.

 Roberts: TPS. Pictorial. Fig. 114-16 for further details re these three illustrations

To this day these images amaze me: in the midst/heat of crisis and potential death cometh service – normal service from Tamil officials adhering to their duties.

So, too, did Lt. Col Gash adhere to his duties to the British government.


Balachandran, P. K. 2015 “PK Balachandran on Overt & Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards Sri Lanka, 2008-09,”26 September 2015,

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010a “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010, 30/4: 35-37, http://wwwasiapacificdefencereporter. com/articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issues, 1970s-2014,” 5 July 2014,

Gamage, Daya 2015 “U.S. clears Sri Lanka of Civilian Deaths: Faults Tiger Human Shield,” 14 August 2015,

IDAG [i.e. Citizen Silva] 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” OR

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2012 [2009] “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” orig, 4 April 2009,

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2012 [2009] “Anatomy of the LTTE military debacle at Aanandapuram,” 10 April 2009,

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2011 KP Speaks Out, Vavuniya: NERDO, Mum Pvt. Ltsd.

Marga 2011 An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG nn the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Nessman, Ravi 2009 “Interview with Associated Press Writer Ravi Nessman: AP Sri Lanka Bureau Chief,” 18 February 2009,

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “An Escape from Hellhole,” 2009/04/25/stories/2009042558390100.html.

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009b “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity.”The Hindu, 27 May 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2011 “IDP camps: Humanitarian Work in the Midst of Propaganda War,” CES Seminar: Power Point File,

Roberts, Michael 2013 Witnesses to “the War without Witnesses” … Voiceless? Buried Foreign Reporters?” 30 December 2013,

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays,  Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2014 Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “The War in Sri Lanka: Ravi Nessman’s Slanted Story for USA on the Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009,” 31 January 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: Us Embassy Despatahes from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015  “Lilliputs in a World of Giants: Marga and CHA bat for Lanka in the Propaganda War, 2009-14,” 18 November 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Speaking to Gotabaya, I: Plans afoot to rescue Tiger Leadership,” 8 March 2016,

Roberts, Michael 2016 David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 5 July 2016,

Roberts, Michael 2017 Reporters struggling with Eelam War IV: Some Recollections and Reports,” 21 October 2017,

Salter, Mark 2015 To End a Civil War. Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, London: Hurst & Company.

Sunday Times Insight Team 2009 “Scandalous plunder of a battered people: paramilitary groups make millions by smuggling out IDOs,” Sunday Times, 6 September 2009, 090906/News/nws_02.html

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper,” 26 September 2014,

Thiagarajah, Jeevan 2015 Confronting the OCHR Investigation in Geneva, September 2014: Memorandum from Jeevan Thiagarajah,” 19 November 2015,

Confronting the OCHR Investigation in Geneva, September 2014: Memorandum from Jeevan Thiagarajah

UNPoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011…. POE_Report_Full.pdf.

UN Internal Panel Report 2012 Ïnternal Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka,” 20 November 2012,

Weiss, Gordon 2011 The Cage, Picador.

***  ****


[1] Apart from those fled in the first three months of the year, about 105- 125,000 people (both civilian and Tiger defectors) were freed from their trapped situation in the week following the breach of the LTTE’s “Last Redoubt’” on the 19.20th April by SL Army commandoes. But there seem to have been approximately 70-100.000 people in the rump arena controlled by the LTTE and some Tamil Net pictures show people fleeing from north to south along the beach in late April or early May.

[2] The TamilNet image of one Julian of the ICRC talking to Dr Sathiyamoorthy on 5th April 2009 within the arena controlled by the Tigers (see Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, Fig. 94a) may indicate aspects of this process.

[3] The SL Army’s final assault commenced circa 9/10th May and seems to have prevented further ICRC operations. The capture of rump LTTE terrain was completed by the 18th May; and Pirapaharan was among those killed when a Tiger contingent was discovered in a swampy locality of Nandikadal Lagoon.

[4] See Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014: Fig. 98a.

[5] Despatch of 20th January 2009,

[6] These estimates of total area are taken from figures stipulated by Gash at different moments in his despatches.

[7] You Tube 2009. The steersman was injured and the boat holed before the party of 12 was captured. The SLN did not know that she was Soosai’s wife till one of the captured Tamils divulged the fact on shore. Significantly, Satyadevi (Soosai’s wife) carried a cell phone as well as 2 kilograms of gold and Rs. 200.000 in cash. Her intent was to telephone her brother and father in UK when she reached India (see Kumara 2012 and Jeyaraj 2012)

[8] See Marine Buzz 2009 and some pictorial images from this set of events at Roberts. TPS Pictorial, 2014: Fig. 98.

[9]See Roberts, “Towards Citizenship …,”in TPS. Essays, 2014: 153.

[10] From Roberts: “IDP Camps,” 2011.

[11] The policed camps for the IDPS in Vavuniya — called Zones –covered enormous areas and were corralled by single-strands of barbed wire which would not have deterred enterprising individuals from slipping away at night. Moreover, Tamil organisations seem to have set up operations which helped spirit away some IDPS, whether for payment or because they were important LTTE personnel (see Sunday times Insight Team 2009). One of those who got away to India was Jegatheeswaran, an Australian engineer who had been part of the LTTE machinery of war and to whom Pirapaharan had entrusted the care of his aged parents. Jegatheeswaran got away to Indian. He surfaced later to mount a legal campaign against the President of Sri Lanka during the CHOGM meeting in Australia.

[12] Information from Admiral Sinniah (Retd) during tel. chat, 5 April 2018.

[13] !!!#!!!#!!!

[14] Camerapersons accompanying Dhaneshi Yatawara of the Sunday Observer.

[15] His work is available under the pseudonym “Citizen Silva” and IDAG. As the first pseudonym (coined by me) indicates, his ethnicity as Sinhala; but the fact remains that he has been solely Captionas 7 Notes accompanying images taken from Tamilnet educated abroad. Issues of job security have forced him to stay anonymous. Any review of his detailed and well referenced study of the Eelam War IV will indicate his credentials. As it is, most UN and Western agencies have studiously avoided any attention to this work. See Kath Nobel (2013) for a convenient summary.

[16] His figures were deployed by me as part of the descriptions accompanying images of the sea operations in Figs. 95 to 98 in TPS. Pictorial (2014).

[17] This issue engages the fast-and-loose manner in which computatins of the Death yoll in the war have been cocomposed and propagated yby many parties dwelling on the war. Few have taken note of the fact that the sprawling IDP camps at Manik Farm only had single-stranded barbed wire fences covering enormous perimeters: so detainees with links beyond the camps could easily escape at night or twilight …. Or that operations had been mounted by Tamil agencies to get people out of the camps – for a price (see Sunday Times 2009).

[18] See Roberts 2014 and Shanmugarajah 2014.

[19] See Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014, Figs. 85a & 88a

[20] Dr Weerasekera (a good friend) provided unqualified praise for the medical skills of the two female LTTE ‘doctors’ (viz. medical auxiliaries) he interacted with at the Pompamadu Rehabilitation Camp for female Tiger detainees when he was providing artificial limbs for the amputees therein. He learnt that they (aged now in the ‘30s) had undertaken umpteen amputations during the war (Weerasekera 2012 and Email to Roberts, dated 17 Nov. 2012). Susiri Werasekera was providing and fitting artificial limbs for amputees.

[21] The “Last Redoubt” is my title for what Lt Col Gash calls the “safe zone” – another name for what was also referred to as the “second no fire zone”. These latter labels are misleading insofar as the LTTE had not accepted the categorization and had military hardware (for e.g. artillery) in use within the arena.

[22] See Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014: Figs. 113 & 114.


Filed under accountability, disaster relief team, Eelam, gordon weiss, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, NGOs, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, trauma, truth as casualty of war, war reportage, world events & processes

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