Chetnik war crimes in World War II
Chetniks war crimes during the Second World War were primarily directed towards the non-Serbian population of Yugoslavia (mainly Muslims and Croats) and Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans and their supporters. Since their establishment in 1903, Chetniks had been instrumental to the nationalist and expansionist politics of Serbia. They acted to preserve the centralized Greater Serbian political system within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The death toll figure offered by historian Vladimir Žerjavić, based on his 1995 findings, established that the Chetniks killed 29,000 Muslims and 18,000 Croats over the course of the war, mostly civilians. The historian Zdravko Dizdar offers a revised figure based on Žerjavić's earlier 1994 estimations, citing 32,000 Croat deaths (20,000 in the borders of modern-day Croatia and 12,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and 33,000 Muslim (Bosnia and Herzegovina and areas of Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak) deaths. Cumulatively, an overall figure of between 47,000 (Žerjavić, 1995) to 65,000 (Dizdar, 1995) Muslims and Croats were killed. Dizdar (2012) also offers a 'median' of around 50,000 victims.
War Crimes and Violations of the Customs of War Against the Partisans
Historians Zdravko Dizdar and Mihajlo Sobolevski divided the criminal methods used by Chetniks into six categories: mass slaughter, rape, burning of live people, beheading, impalement, and execution of the wounded. Other methods, included hanging, massacring with various objects, stoning, maiming, starving, robbing and forcible conversions to Orthodoxy also took place in the prisons like the Central Chetnik Prison Camp near Knin.
Crimes Over the Prisoners of War
The surrender of the captured Yugoslav Partisans to the Nazis occurred during the uprising in Serbia in November 1941. General Dragoljub Mihailović's staff handed 350 captured partisans to the Nazis, who proceeded to execute the partisans. During the conflict between the Chetniks and the partisans in Western Serbia, the Chetniks captured more than one hundred partisans. A larger group of approximately 500 prisoners, including partisans captured on fraud in the towns of Gornji Milanovac, Kosjerić, Karan, and Planinica, were captured by Chetniks in the Ravna Gora mountain range.
Around the 13th of November, 1941, Chetniks took a group of 365 prisoners to the town of Mionica and then redirected to the village of Slovac, where they were taken by Nazi and Serbian collaborationist forces who transferred them to the city of Valjevo. The convoy was secured by the Chetnik leader Jovan Škavović Škava. The meeting between Mihailović and the Nazis in the village of Divci, in which they agreed on mutual cooperation, preceded the Partisans' surrender. From this group of prisoners, the Nazis executed 263 of them on 27 November, 1941, in Krušik, Valjevo, while others were later executed, deported to concentration camps, or released.
Execution of partisans was carried out on a regular basis, which remains documented. For instance:
Captured 25 Partisans and killed 24 on the site.— Miloš Erkić's [commander of the Tuzla Brigade of the 58th May Corps], Notification to the commanders of the Sember and May brigades, 24 December 1943.
Commander of Second Kosovo Corps reports: We broke traitor Lieutenant Radulović and his group. Fighting was conducted by the Second Studen Brigade in the village of Gumništa where 21 Partisans and 9 captives were killed.
According to the captive testimonies, Second Proletarian Division from the Peko Dapčević's corps, which has three divisions, was here. This division consisted of Second Dalmatian and Second Proletarian Divisions with around 800 people each and the Forest Brigade with 400. Total 2.000. They had a lot of launchers and automatic weaponry, but little ammo. 8 Keserović's Englishmen with Col. Seitz and radio station joined them in Negbina. Their last parts are in Negbina and the majority in Klek. Many of their wounded died on the way. We captured 16 and slaughtered them without a court-martial.— Telegram no. 1011 by Bi-Bi [Major Radomir Cvetić, commander of the Javor Corps]. No. 47, 21 January 1944.
The Bralenovice facility near Danilovgrad, which housed a children's orphanage prior to WWII, was used as a concentration camp for partisans and civilians.
The largest imprisonments were carried out through April and May 1942. As Jakov N. Jovović wrote in letter no. 8 to Baja Stanišić from 30 May, 1942, "489 people, ranging from one year to old men" were imprisoned in the camp. In August 1942, the number of prisoners was estimated at 610, but ranged between 700 and 1,000 at certain periods. It is estimated that Stanišić killed 426 partisans between April 1942 and September 1943. Chetniks had been receiving cash prizes from the Nazis for the capture and executions of Montenegrin partisans.
Medical Personnel and Patients
On 31 October 1941, Chetniks attacked the hospital of the Pomoravlje Partisan Detachment near the village of Ursule. This attack was carried out within the framework of the general attack of the Nazi and Serb collaborationist units on the Free Partisan Territory of Levača. Around ten nurses and fighters of the Levača Unit of the Pomoravlje Partisan Detachment were captured. All the prisoners were taken to Rekovac, redirected to Riljac and Ljubostinje, and finally either killed, sent to the concentration camps, or escaped.
Between the 4th and 5th of November, 1941, Chetniks attacked the Partisan Hospital in the village of Gornja Gorevnica, captured eleven partisans, and killed a nurse. The prisoners were taken to Brajići where they were sentenced to death by court-martial. The sentence was carried out on 5 November in Brajići.
On 25 March, 1943, Chetnik units of the Dinaric Division were ordered to begin "cleansing [the area] from Croats and Bosniak" and to create "one national corridor along the Dinara mountain for the connection of Herzegovina with Northern Dalmatia and Lika."
In June 1943, during the operation Case Black, the Chetniks slaughtered dozens of captured partisans, including Ivan Goran Kovačić, a renowned Croatian poet. The 1st Mountain Division reported: "Captured 498, of which 411 were executed." In mid-July 1943, in Cikota [eastern Bosnia], the Chetniks found 80 wounded Partisans from the First Proletarian Division, seized their weapons, and handed them to the Nazis. The Nazis killed them and proceeded to burn their bodies.
In July 1943, Chetniks found wounded partisans from the First and Second Proletarian Brigades in Bišina and handed them to the Nazis. The wounded partisans were later executed as a result. In May 1944, Chetnik Dragutin Keserović found a partisan hospital in Jastrebac and shot 24 patients and 4 nurses. In May 1944, the Chetniks discovered another partisan hospital in Semberija and killed about 300 seriously wounded patients. In Krčan, southeast of Udbina, some 90 seriously wounded Partisans were hiding in 16 houses. They initially hid in the pits with fifteen nurses for ten days following Operation Morgenstern (a joint offensive of Wehrmacht, Armed Forces of the NDH and Chetniks on the free territory of Lika against Partisans. The area held between 7 and 23 May, 1944). Nurses, mostly members of the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia from surrounding villages, carried the wounded from the pits to Krčan. A group of Partisans watched over Trnova Poljana, guarding the access to Krčan, Kuke, and Visuć from Lapac. Popović knew about Partisan posts, so he brought Chetniks to the village in a roundabout way. They entered Krčan on 2 June, 1944, at 10 am. They killed 36 wounded partisans. Women and seniors managed to hide 56 other wounded partisans. Two doctors, Dr. Josip Kajfeš (a Croat) and Dr. Suppa (an Italian) were killed, while Dr. Finderle was wounded.
Civilians Suspected of Collaboration with the Partisans
Chetniks terrorized civilians suspected of collaboration with the partisans and intimidated others in order to prevent them from supporting the partisans. A suspect's family members and children were often tortured for collaboration with partisans. Such fieldwork was regarded as an indispensable part of their struggle against communism that was no less important than fighting against the partisans. In particular, it was considered important to "clear the terrain" after the occupational units moved into previously liberated territories.
I have ordered the destruction of entire families, the burning of homes and entire villages where the Partisans find their strongholds because some Serbian degenerates help the proletariat scum in some villages. This is what I ordered because we lose our best nationalists due to our own degenerates.
In late December 1943, Mihailović ordered an operation that targeted communists in the area south of Belgrade. Colonel Jevrem Simić(General Inspector of the Chetnik Detachments) and Nikola Kalabić(Commander of the Chetnik Hill Guard Corps) were the main coordinators. After they signed the agreement with the Nazis on the ceasefire and cooperation in the given territories on 26 November, 1943, Chetniks brought their units and started the so-called "field clearance."
Our Aval Corpus with srezs of Grocka, Vračar and Umka sleeps a deep sleep. All areas close to Belgrade are infested with communists and their supporters. I order commanders Major Mihail Jovanović, Captain Lazović, Captain Nikola Kalabić, furthermore Komarčević and the Mining Corps to be the most energetic from south to north (...) in cleansing along all srezs, especially Kosmaj. It is especially important to clear srezs of Grocka and Umka. At the same time, I congratulate Captains Živojin Lazović and Nikola Kalabić. The decree was fulfilled on 1 December and there will be further promotions for accomplishments. Continuously inform others about the actions taken.— Mihailović's telegram to the commanders Seged, Kiš (Živojin Lazović, commander of the Smederevo Corps), Ras-Ras (Nikola Kalabić), Dog-Dog and Romel).
Mihailović's operation lasted between 20 and 21 December. During that time, members of the Smederevo Corps, under the command of Živan Lazović, killed 72 civilians, 9 of which were children aged between 9 months and 12 years. This became known as the "Vranić massacre". After the operation, Mihailović sent the following note:
Terrible inactivity of the elders of Aval Corps. Živan Lazović must come so he could show what could be done.— Mihailović's telegram no. 546 to 548 for Dob-Dob and Kom-Kom, 18 January 1944.
In January of 1943, under the Komarčević's command, Chetniks slaughtered 72 partisan supporters in the Posavina Srez. In December of 1943, Chetnik Commander Živan Lazović slaughtered 15 peasant partisan supporters. That same month, Chetniks under the command of Nikola Kalabić slaughtered 21 peasants in Kopljare and, under the command of Vuk Kalaitović, shot 18 Partisan supporters in the town of Sjenica. Later, in August of 1944, Chetniks under the command of Sveto Bogičević entered Sepci where they captured Sava Sremečević, Konstantin Vojinović, Ilija Radojević and Ilija Jovanović. After torturing them in an attempt to provoke a confession of collaboration with Partisans, they killed them.
Crimes Against Muslims and Croats
- 28 June, 1941- Chetniks killed 47 Bosniaks (mostly women and children) in the village of Avtovac, which they later looted and burned.
- 27 July, 1941- Chetniks, under the command of Branko Bogunović, killed 62 Croats, of which 5 were women and 9 children, during the Bosansko Grahovo massacre. They also robbed and burned a number of Croatian houses in Bosansko Grahovo and five surrounding villages. More than 250 Croatian men, women, and children from Obalj, Korita, Luka, Ugarci, and Crni Lug were killed. During the massacre, the Chetniks tortured a Catholic priest, Rev Juraj Gospodnetić, and burned him alive in front of his mother. Some of the Croats who had fled to Knin had started to return to the area in early November 1941, but Bogunović barred them.13 November, 1941- It's written in a report from the Knin police district that Bogunović "threatens and slaughters Croatian people every day until he kills the last Croat because [according to him] no Croat shall live on his territory. (...) On 12 November, Bogunović killed five shepherds from Luka and then took their 500 sheep, 20 cattle, and 10 horses. It's also known that a few days ago Mate Samardžija, his wife, and child went missing under Bogunović's authority. (...) [Due to Bogunović], the Croatian people are forced to leave their homes and properties and run to Knin to at least save their lives".
- 12 November, 1941- Bogunović said in Sava Dešić's inn near Kninsko Polje that, "There is no salvation for the Croats, and there is no need for them to run because they cannot escape, there is no Croatian state, nor will it be, and all Croats need to be slaughtered." In addition, a significant number of Bosniaks who worked in the nearby cellulose factory were killed.
- 11-13 April, 1941- Chetniks killed 17 Croats, in Derventa. Between 13 and 15 April, 1941, Chetniks killed 20 Croats and 5 Bosniaks, and burned 40 houses in the area around Čapljina. On 15 April, 1941, in the area near Mostar Chetniks killed 5 Croats and burned the Croatian villages of Cim and Ilići. During the Italian Fascist Operation Albia around Biokovo, that lasted between 29 August and 3 September 1942, Chetniks, under the command of Petar Baćović, committed crimes against Croat civilians, most notably in Zabiokovlje during which they killed at least 141 Croats, and robbed and burned the villages of Rašćan, Kozica, Dragljane, and Župa.
- 5 September, 1942- Baćović mentioned these crimes in the report to Mihailović: "(...) Additionally, I would like to add in regards to the departure of our criminal expedition in Ljubuški and Imotski, that our Chetniks (...) skinned alive three Catholic priests between Ljubuški and Vrgorac. Our Chetniks were killing all men aged 15 and above. Woman and children under the age of 15 haven't been killed. 17 villages were completely burned." Over the night of 1/2 August, 1941, Serbs from the Donji Lapac area rebelled against the NDH and some 2,000 Croats from Boričevac were forced to flee to Kulen Vakuf. On 2 August, Chetniks entered Boričevac, killed around 400 people and destroyed the village, including a Catholic church. Crimes were also perpetrated in Brotinja, Mišljenovac, Donji, and Gornji Lapac, among other environs.
- 27 July, 1941- Chetniks threw 37 Croats into a pit. They also killed a group of 300 Croats at Trubar near Drvar, who had been led by Father Waldemar Maksimilian Nestor home from a pilgrimage in Knin.
- 9-10 August, 1941- Chetniks massacred Croats, mostly seniors, women, and children (including 49 children under the age of 12) in Krnjeuša. Croatian homes were burned and robbed. 240 killed civilians were identified, including a 34-year-old Catholic priest, Rev Krešimir Barišić, who was tortured and burned alive, as well as 49 children and 72 women (a number of whom were pregnant). That same day, Chetniks killed about 70 Croats in the neighboring village of Vrtoče. A number of people ran to Bihać. After the massacre, the Croat population almost entirely disappeared from the area.
- September 1941- Chetniks from Herzegovina and Montenegro killed 526 Bosniak civilians in Berkovići and Trusina. Of these, 365 were thrown alive into the pits. Such cases were recorded during 1941 and the first half of 1942. Sporadic attacks occurred in situations where Chetnik units were passing through the areas inhabited by non-Serbs. These were followed by the killings of civilians, rapes, robberies, and destruction of property.
- 6 September, 1941- In Kulen Vakuf, Chetniks killed some 2,300 civilians, including seniors, woman, and children. Most of the victims were Bosniaks and the rest, around 100 people, Croats from Vrtoče, Krnjeuša, Boričevac and Bosansko Grahovo, villages that were destroyed by Chetniks in July and August 1941.
- 7 September, 1941- Chetniks entered Dubljani, and robbed and burned houses belonging to the Croats. Sixteen prominent Croats from Duljani and one from Prhinje were publicly hanged. This was done to intimidate Croats who had fled the area not to return. Of 326 Croats recorded in the 1937 census, in 1948 there were only 80 inhabitants left in Dubljani, of which only one declared as a Croat.
- 1-2 October, 1942- A group of Chetniks under the command of Momčilo Đujić, Mane Rotkvić and Veljko Ilijić participated in an organized action of retaliation against civilians in Gata and surrounding villages, killing 96 Croats.
- 14–15 October, 1942- Chetniks, acting on their own, reportedly massacred more than five hundred Croats and Muslim civilians and burnt numerous villages in the area of Prozor-Rama in a process of the Operation Alfa on the suspicion that they "harbored and aided the Partisans."
According to Croatian historian Jozo Tomasevich, incomplete data shows 543 civilians were massacred. At least 656 victims are known by name while another source says about 848 people, mainly "children, women, and the elderly," were killed. Historian Ivo Goldstein estimates 1,500 were massacred in total and attributes the discrepancy "due to the fact that the estimates refer to different territories." Historians Antun Miletić and Vladimir Dedijer placed the figure killed at 2,500.
18 October, 1942- A report written by Italian Captain Vigiaca details the crimes to the head of the Intelligence Department of the Italian 6th Army Corps Major Angel de Mateis. This massacre was discussed on the Trial of Mihailović et al. by witness Aleksa Franjušić.
The Partisan newspaper Borba reported that "about 2,000 souls" were "killed by the Chetniks in Croatian and Muslim villages of Prozor, Konjic, and Vakuf" and that "the districts of Prozor and Konjic have hundreds of slaughtered and murdered women and children as well as burnt houses."
Systematic crimes with genocidal characteristics
Chetnik ideologists stipulated that ethnic cleansing of certain areas was necessary in order to consolidate an ethnically "pure" Serb territory as the basis of post-war Yugoslavia. This ethnic cleansing was supposed to be conducted "at a convenient moment." One of the numerous documents that attest to this plan is Mihailović's written "instruction" to Pavle Đurišić from 20 December 1941:
The goals of our squadrons are:
- A struggle for the freedom of our people under the scepter of His Majesty King Peter II,
- To create Greater Yugoslavia and Greater Serbia within it, and ethnically cleansed Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Syrmia, Banat and Bačka within Greater Serbia,
- A struggle for inclusion into our state life all other Slavic territories occupied by the Italians and Germans (Trieste, Gorizia, Istria and Carinthia) as well as Bulgaria and northern Albania with Shkodër,
- Cleansing the state territory from all national minorities and non-national elements,
- To create immediate common borders between Serbia and Montenegro, as well as between Serbia and Slovenia by [ethnically] cleansing Sandžak from Muslims and Bosnia from Muslims and Croats...
The basic precondition for creating an ethnically "clean" area was the destruction of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and the ethnic cleansing of the area inhabited by Croats and Bosniaks. Regarding the realization of his Greater Serbian program, Homogenous Serbia, Stevan Moljević wrote in a letter to Dragiša Vasić in February 1942:
(...) 2) Regarding our internal affairs, the demarcation with the Croats, we hold that we should as soon as an opportunity occurs, gather all the strength and create a completed act: occupy territories marked on the map, clean it before anyone pulls itself together. We would assume that the occupation would only be carried out if the main hubs were strong in Osijek, Vinkovci, Slavonski Brod, Sunja, Karlovac, Knin, Šibenik, Mostar and Metković, and then from within start with an [ethnic] cleansing of all non-Serb elements. The guilty should have an open way - Croats to Croatia, Muslims to Turkey (or Albania). As for the Muslims, our government in London should immediately address the issue with Turkey. English will also help us. (Question is!). The organization for the interior cleansing should be prepared immediately, and it could be because there are many refugees in Serbia from all "Serb lands" (...).
The documents of the Chetnik commanders reveal that the reason for terrorism against the non-Serb population was a desire to establish an ethnically pure Greater Serbia in the historical territory of many peoples, most notably Croatian, Muslim, but also Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and others, and not crimes on the Serbs in NDH as the Chetniks officially claimed. Mihailović went further than Moljević and requested more than 90% of the NDH's territory, where more than 2,500,000 Catholics and more than 800,000 Muslims lived, accounting for about 70% of the total population with the Orthodox Serbs making up only about 30% of the population. Chetnik commander Milan Šantić stated in Trebinje in July 1942: "The Serb lands must be cleansed from Catholics and Muslims. They will be inhabited only by the Serbs. Cleansing will be carried out thoroughly, and we will suppress and destroy them all without exception and without pity, which will be the starting point for our liberation."
In the "Elaborate" of the Chetnik's Dinaric Battalion from March 1942, it's stated that Chetnik's main goal was to create a "Serbian national state in the areas in which the Serbs live, and even those to which Serbs aspire (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lika and part of Dalmatia)" where "only Orthodox population would live". It is also stated that Bosniaks should be convinced that Serbs are their allies, so they wouldn't join the Partisans, and then kill them."
According to Bajo Stanišić, the final goal of the Chetniks was "founding of a new Serbian state, not a geographical term but a purely Serbian, with four basic attributes: the Serbian state [Greater Serbia], the Serb King [of] the Karađorđević dynasty, Serbian nationality, and Serbian faith. The Balkan federation is also the next stage, but the main axis and leadership of this federation must be our Serbian state, that is, the Greater Serbia."
The Chetniks' leadership saw this previously mentioned "convenient moment" in January and February 1943. During this period, Chetniks, under the command of Zaharije Ostojić and with the assistance from Pavle Đurišić and Vojislav Lukačević's units, conducted extensive genocide operations and ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia and Sandžak. After they finished, Đurić wrote in the report to Mihailović:
To the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command - Operations in Pljevlja, Čajniče, and Foča srezs against Muslims are completed. The operations were executed exactly as commanded. The attack started at the agreed time. All commanders and units have accomplished tasks to the general satisfaction. All the Muslim villages in the three mentioned srezs are completely burned so that none of their homes were left intact.
All the property, except cattle, grains, and haylofts, has been destroyed. The collection of human and animal food for the creation of spare food storage and feeding units that remained in the field for cleaning and screening of terrain and forest areas, and for the implementation and consolidation of the organization on the liberated territory, was ordered at certain places.
During the operation, the complete destruction of Muslims regardless of sex and age was conducted.
Victims. - Our totaled 22, of which 2 were unlucky and 32 wounded. As of Muslims, about 1,200 fighters and up to 8,000 other victims: women, the elderly and children.
During the initial operations, the Muslims ran towards Metaljka, Čajniče and Drina. A small part of the population found shelter in Metaljka. It's estimated that there are up to 2,000 refugees in Čajniče, and one part of it has managed to cross Drina before certain units have made cross-cutting of possible directions in that sector. The rest of population was destroyed.
The moral of the Muslims was destroyed. It was the epidemic of fear of our Chetniks, so they were simply said lost...
Soon afterward, in late March and during April 1943, the Yugoslav Partisans expelled Chetnicks from this area. At a later stage, the German command, which was equally keen on cooperation with both, Chetnick and Muslim collaborators, made the cessation of such operations. Chetnik planners and ideologists postponed their plans for the end of the war. Dragiša Vasić wrote in a letter to Mihailović in April 1942:
With regard to point II b), where it's said that it's necessary to occupy the territory immediately, and before anyone can get rid of the foreign element, I think that this issue shouldn't worry us that much. I remember very good the situation in which Europe was after the last war. Countries that were engaged in the war were so busy with their own internal affairs that no one, so to speak, was taking into account what others were doing within their own borders. In the first year after the end of the war, one good part of the unwanted population could simply be eradicated, and nobody would turn their heads. So, if we are smart, this issue of cleansing or reshaping and changing the population shouldn't be particularly difficult for us.
Letter from the Commander of the Ozren Chetniks Corps from 13 February 1943 sent to the commander of the Zenica Military-Chetnik Detachment shows that the source of the Chetnik crimes of genocide over Croats and Muslims dates back to the creation of Serbia as an independent state in 1882:
(...) Maybe these goals look to you and your fighters big and unrealistic. Remember great liberation struggles under the leadership of the Vožd Karađorđe. Serbia was full of Turks [Muslims]. In Belgrade and other Serbian lands, Muslim minarets were sticking up, and Turks carried out their stinky washings in front of the mosques as they are now doing in Serbian Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims flooded our homeland. Take a walk through Serbia today. Nowhere will you find neither Turks [Muslims], their graveyards nor gravestones. (...) It's the best proof and the greatest guarantee that we will succeed in today's holy struggle, and that we will exhort all Turks from these Serb lands. No Muslim will remain among us. (...) The villagers and other people will move to Turkey. Our government in London, through the allied and friendly government of England, seeks to achieve the consent with the Turkish government (so Churchill spoke in Ankara with Mr. İnönü). We will mercilessly destroy all Catholics [Croats] who wronged our people in these tragic days, as well as all intellectuals and economically stronger. The peasantry and the workers will be saved, and we will make them real Serbs by forcibly converting them to Orthodoxy. These are the goals of our great struggle and when the time comes we will realize them. We have already realized them in some parts of our homeland. (...)
At the beginning of August 1945, the first public post-war trial before the court-martial, was organized in a liberated Belgrade against Vojislav Lukačević among others. The Public Prosecutor, Miloš Minić, accused Lukačević of committing a massacre in Foča as a commander of Chetnik units in Bosnia, participation in the extermination of the Muslim population, collaboration with the Nazis and Milan Nedić, and of committing crimes against the Yugoslav Partisans. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. The punishment was carried out in Belgrade in late August 1945.
Chetnik leader Dragoljub Mihailović was captured on 13 March, 1946, by agents of the Yugoslav Security Agency OZNA. He was indicted on 47 points. The court found him guilty of 8, including crimes against humanity and high treason. He was sentenced to death on 15 July and executed along with nine other Chetnik commanders in Lisičji Potok in the early hours of 18 July, 1946.
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