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03/30/2005

Behind the Hariri cover-up

Bomb_crater

The infamous Robert Fisk has a fascinating piece in The Independent on the cover-up of the Rafik al-Hariri assassination.

It all begins in the late 1990s when Hariri was prime minister. He lived in a palace of pre-stressed concrete in the Beirut suburb of Qoreitem and travelled everywhere with a government-supplied team of escorts from Lebanon’s Internal Security Force.

Of the 40 men regularly on his team, Hariri regularly drove with one of its senior officers, a man he liked, the heavily mustachioed Ali Haj. "Things were quite normal," one of Hariri’s closest associates now says, "until Sheikh Rafik found that the Syrians seemed to know everything he was saying in his car. People thought he must be bugged or that there was a tap on his phone. And after a while, he decided that Ali Haj might be telling the Syrians what he was saying."

In a land such as Lebanon—where everyone listens to everyone else (Hariri had his own security informants—that had to be investigated.

"So he told Ali Haj something very specific that the Syrians wouldn’t like," the family associate says. "And, within minutes of meeting a Syrian official that day, the very same matter was raised with him. That day, Sheikh Rafik asked another security man to ride with him. Ali Haj was relegated to another car."

Within a short time, Ali Haj was reassigned—to a Lebanese intelligence post in the Bekaa valley where he dealt regularly with Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon.

Now we flash forward to 14 February 2005. Hariri’s armoured motorcade, struck by a bomb of around 600kg, lies blazing in the narrow road beside the St George Hotel on the Beirut Corniche. The vehicles, pitted with shrapnel holes, perhaps bearing traces of the explosives, formed a pattern which showed how the bomb scattered the cars—as well as the order in which the convoy was travelling.

But within hours—although every other burning car was left intact beside the highway—Hariri’s vehicles had disappeared. The decision was taken by the man who is now head of the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Internal Security Force, a certain Brigadier General Ali Salah Haj.

He ordered that the wreckage should be removed from the scene of the crime—and this, remember, was the location of the murder of the most important figure in the history of independent Lebanon—and taken away on trucks to the Lebanese Charles Helou army barracks. Where they remain to this day.

Ali Haj was among the many thousands of mourners who later came to pay their respects to the Hariri family. Witnesses later recorded he was given a frosty reception. Ghenna Hariri, the young daughter of Hariri’s sister Bahiya, a Lebanese MP in the southern city of Sidon, greeted him with the words: "Your place is not here." When he offered his hand to Hariri’s widow Nazek—who now wears her late husband’s wedding ring on a chain round her neck—she touched her chest modestly rather than take Ali Haj’s hand.

The plot thickens. Meanwhile, The New York Post reports:

Syria said for the first time yesterday that it would withdraw all its military and intelligence forces from Lebanon before elections due to be held there in May.

Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara made the pledge in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The letter said that longtime close cooperation between Syria and Lebanon had enabled Damascus to decrease its troop levels to 10,000 from 40,000, "coupled with the full withdrawal of these troops before the forthcoming elections in Lebanon."

Syrian U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said a joint Syrian-Lebanese coordinating committee would meet before Saturday to set a timetable for the withdrawal.

The meeting would take place just before the expected arrival in the region of Annan's special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen.

Syria submitted the letter as the U.N. Security Council met in closed session to discuss a resolution, drafted by the United States and France, that would authorize an independent international investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

An outside investigation was recommended by a U.N. fact-finding mission led by Irish Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, which said a Lebanese inquiry into the killing "suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion."

The mission also said Syrian military intelligence "bore primary responsibility for a lack of security, protection and law and order" in Lebanon at the time of Hariri's death.

Will General Ali Salah Haj be leaving too?

Posted by Rodger on March 30, 2005 at 10:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/28/2005

The Second Amendment, Iraqi style

Ak47
A couple of months ago, I wrote about Bobby Doster and Gloria Turner of Crawford, Georgia, who took up arms to defend their country store from a pair of would-be killers. The New York Times reports that a not-so-dissimilar incident took place last Tuesday in Baghdad.

Just before noon today, a carpenter named Dhia saw a troop of masked gunmen with grenades coming towards his shop and decided he had had enough.

As the gunmen emerged from their cars, Dhia and his young relatives shouldered their own AK-47's and opened fire, police and witnesses said. In the fierce gun battle that followed, three of the insurgents were killed, and the rest fled just after the police arrived. Two of Dhia's young nephews and a bystander were injured, the police said.

"We attacked them before they attacked us," Dhia, 35, his face still contorted with rage and excitement, said in a brief exchange at his shop a few hours after the battle. He did not give his last name. "We killed three of those who call themselves the mujahedeen. I am waiting for the rest of them to come and we will show them."

Arthur Chrenkoff correctly points out that—pace the Times—this certainly isn't "the first time that private citizens are known to have retaliated successfully against insurgents" in Iraq. But it does appear to be the first time that the estimable AK-47 has been showcased in such a story.

As you may recall, the legendary assault weapon was the subject of a highly misleading ad by MoveOn.org during the fall Presidential campaign. But—despite numerous efforts to disarm the Iraqi citizenry—the family-owned  AK-47 would still seem to be flourishing in the homes and shops of Baghdad.

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2005 at 02:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mais c'est logique, n'est-ce pas?

Benon_sevan

Here's a stunner from The Washington Times:

The United Nations yesterday struggled to explain why it will reimburse about $300,000 in legal fees accrued by Benon Sevan, the discredited former administrator of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

U.N. officials said they had promised to pay for Mr. Sevan's lawyers in October 2004, well before he was found by the U.N.-sanctioned Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) to have steered contracts and personally benefited from his job.

The reimbursement was appropriate, they said earlier this week, because Mr. Sevan was being investigated for actions taken in his official capacity.

So, let me see if I've got this right: If I attain a position of considerable power, and while in that position, I abuse my power, then I'm entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of my legal defense, since my abuse of power happened—what a coincidence!—while I was in power.

You know Bill Clinton's got to be watching all this and thinking: Now, why the hell didn't I think of that?

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2005 at 12:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/27/2005

More than a banking scandal?

Rana
The current issue of U.S. News & World Report offers a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of the Lebanese banking world—and its ties to terrorism, money laundering and the Lebanon's Syrian masters. The article focuses on Beirut's Al-Madina Bank, which collapsed in mid-2003, leaving roughly $1 billion in depositors' assets unaccounted for. Subsequent investigation has discovered that the bank had been involved in laundering money for the Russian mafia, Saudi Islamic associations and the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

The shadiest of a large cast of shady characters involved in the scandal is one Rana Koleilat (pictured above), who—before her fall from grace—appeared to have pretty much all the officialdom of Lebanon and Syria comfortably in her back pocket.

For someone who earned a salary of just $1,000 a month, Rana Koleilat managed to live a pretty nice life. She traveled by private jet, took along her servants and hairdresser, and stayed at the poshest hotels in London and Paris. Back home, in Beirut, Lebanon, she lived in a three-story penthouse. To anyone who asked how she lived so well, she replied that she had a "rich uncle."

Actually, Koleilat helped manage a private bank in Beirut, and thereby hangs a tale. Two years ago, the Bank Al-Madina collapsed in scandal. At center stage was none other than Rana Koleilat. The chairman of the bank, a man named Adnan Abou Ayyash, says he lost more than $1.2 billion, and he blames Koleilat and a few cohorts. Depositors lost another several hundred million dollars. Lebanese authorities have charged Koleilat, Ayyash, and eight others in one of the biggest banking scandals in Lebanon's history.

Interesting stuff, to be sure, but behind the scenes there's an even bigger story--how the bank allegedly funneled money to powerful Syrian and Lebanese officials, laundered funds for Iraq's Central Bank when Saddam Hussein was in power, and funded Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization.

An investigation by Fortress Global—a private investigative firm hired by the bank's former chairman Adnan Ayyash—reveals numerous questionable payments by Koleilat to various officials of the Lebanese and Syrian governments.

During a one-month period ending in January 2003, Koleilat used Al-Madina funds to pay $941,000 to the brothers of Gen. Rustum Ghazali, then the powerful chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. Citing a confidential source, Fortress Global says that the following March, Koleilat arranged a $300,000 "donation" for General Ghazali from bank funds. She also moved $100,000, in November 2002, through an account at a sister bank of Al-Madina's to a Lebanon bank account of Mustapha Tlass, then the minister of defense and the deputy prime minister of Syria, according to Fortress Global.

Its report cites other "questionable" deals. In 2002, the report says, Koleilat transferred, at no cost, a lavish Beirut apartment to a close friend of Khaled Kaddour, identified as the office manager for Syrian Lt. Col. Maher Assad. Assad is the brother of Syrian President Assad. Koleilat also used bank funds, the report said, to buy a villa from Elias Murr, then Lebanon's interior minister and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Lahoud. Koleilat paid $10 million for the property, and placed it in the name of her boyfriend, Fortress Global says. When the villa was later taken over by Lebanese authorities, the investigators say, it was valued at $2.5 million.

A law suit filed by Mr. Ayyash in federal court in Manhattan also alleges that Koleilat laundered money for Saddam Hussein and helped fund the terrorist organization Hezbollah to the tune of $3.5 million.

The law firm representing Mr. Ayyash in the United States, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, offers this description of the case on their website:

Hughes Hubbard is seeking more than $1 billion in damages in a case arising from the collapse of Lebanon’s Al-Madina Bank in February 2003. The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York in late November, was brought under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and the laws of New York State.  Plaintiff is bank majority owner and former chairman Dr. Adnan Abou Ayyash, a Saudi construction magnate with joint Saudi-Lebanese citizenship. Defendants include the bank and its affiliate, the United Credit Bank (UCB), the alleged mastermind of the fraudulent scheme (former Al-Madina executive Rana Koleilat) and John Does No. 1-10, among others. 

As portrayed in the complaint, Rana Koleilat acted as the ringleader of a corrupt enterprise that included her brothers Bassel and Taha, her boyfriend Moawad, her aunt Ayyas and other officers, managers and employees of Al-Madina Bank. Among the charges set forth in the complaint are that Koleilat gave at least $3.5 million stolen from the bank to "Al-Shaheed," a front organization for Hezbollah, the terrorist organization, and that conspirators laundered money through the Al-Madina Bank on behalf of the Central Bank of Iraq. 

Rana Koleilat joined the bank in 1985 as secretary to Ibrahim Ayyash, the bank’s general manager and brother of Dr. Adnan Abou Ayyash. In time, Koleilat rose to become a senior bank official, whose specific responsibility was to interface with the Central Bank of Lebanon. As such, the complaint charges, she "was in a unique position to execute the defendants’ scheme and conspiracy." 

Beginning as early as November 1999, Koleilat is alleged to have executed a series of forgeries designed to transfer funds into "dummy" accounts at the bank controlled by her and others. By November 2002, Dr. Abou Ayyash had unwittingly transferred $670 million into one such account. Eventually, Dr. Abou Ayyash would infuse an additional $470 million of his own funds into the Al-Madina Bank in a fruitless effort to avert a liquidity crisis allegedly brought on by Rana Koleilat and her cohorts. 

Press accounts have emphasized possible Al-Madina Bank connections not only with the former Iraqi regime but also with high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials. (Lebanon has for some time been a de facto Syrian protectorate.) The arrest and release on bail, in late December, of Rana Koleilat was page one news in Beirut, as was an earlier, unexpected decision—believed to be politically motivated—by the Lebanese prosecutor-general to end his probe of the two banks.

(The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin also has a full account of developments in the case prior to the involvement of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed and Fortress Global.)

The Rafik al-Hariri assassination has already shed a great deal of light on the politics of Lebanon. Expect the continuing international investigation to illuminate the corrupt world of Lebanese banking as well.

Posted by Rodger on March 27, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/26/2005

Come back, little Bashar?

Lebanon_protest_1

Another bombing in Beirut today:

A loud explosion was heard in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Saturday, and Arab TV stations cited security officials as saying it was caused by a bomb. There was no word on casualties.

The nature of the explosion was not immediately known, but witnesses said the blast, coming on the eve of the Easter holiday, occurred in the predominantly Christian northeastern Beirut suburb of Dekweneh.

Other witnesses said the blast took place in the Bouchrieh-Dekweneh industrial zone area.

Arab satellite stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera cited unidentified Lebanese security officials as saying the cause of the explosion was a bomb. Local LBC station said at least one building was on fire.

Ambulances were heard rushing to the scene and witnesses reported seeing a fire in the area of the explosion. A cloud of smoke was seen rising over the Dekweneh area.

Two bombs have rocked Christian areas in Lebanon in the past week, killing two people and injuring more than 10, sparking fears of the return of the sectarian violence that plagued Lebanon during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The motive behind the attacks wasn't immediately clear, but Lebanese opposition leaders have blamed Syrian security agents and pro-Damascus Lebanese authorities, saying they wanted to sow fear in the community.

Meanwhile, the U.N. fact-finding mission has issued its report on the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. For a U.N. document, the conclusions are quite damning:

After gathering the available facts, the Mission concluded that the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon. The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus. In doing so, they have severely failed to provide the citizens of Lebanon with an acceptable level of security and, therefore, have contributed to the propagation of a culture of intimidation and impunity. The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.

It is also the Mission's conclusion that the Government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination of former Prime Minister Mr. Hariri. The Government of Syria clearly exerted influence that goes beyond the reasonable exercise of cooperative or neighborly relations. It interfered with the details of governance in Lebanon in a heavy-handed and inflexible manner that was the primary reason for the political polarization that ensued. Without prejudice to the results of the investigation, it is obvious that this atmosphere provided the backdrop for the assassination of Mr. Hariri.

It became clear to the Mission that the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion. To find the truth, it would be necessary to entrust the investigation to an international independent commission, comprising the different fields of expertise that are usually involved in carrying out similarly large investigations in national systems, with the necessary executive authority to carry out interrogations, searches, and other relevant tasks. Furthermore, it is more than doubtful that such an international commission could carry out its tasks satisfactorily—and receives the necessary active cooperation from local authorities—while the current leadership of the Lebanese security services remains in office.

It is the Mission's conclusion that the restoration of the integrity and credibility of the Lebanese security apparatus is of vital importance to the security and stability of the country. A sustained effort to restructure, reform and retrain the Lebanese security services will be necessary to achieve this end, and will certainly require assistance and active engagement on the part of the international community.

Finally, it is the Mission's view that international and regional political support will be necessary to safeguard Lebanon's national unity and to shield its fragile polity from unwarranted pressure. Improving the prospects of peace and security in the region would offer a more solid ground for restoring normalcy in Lebanon.

Don't expect the same Bashar al-Assad who told Rafik al-Hariri last August that he would "break Lebanon" rather than accede to a Syrian withdrawal to go gentle into that good night.

I have little doubt that Syrian intelligence is prepared to keep up the bombings in an effort to justify their continued presence in Lebanon.

Posted by Rodger on March 26, 2005 at 04:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

An era of exploitation?

Water
… or an era of opportunity?

Here's Bob Herbert in The New York Times

President Bush believes in an "ownership" society, which means that except for the wealthy, you're on your own. The president's budget would cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps, education, transportation, health care for veterans, law enforcement, medical research and safety inspections for food and drugs. And, of course, it contains big new tax cuts for the wealthy.

These are the new American priorities. Republicans will tell you they were ratified in the last presidential election. We may be locked in a long and costly war, and federal deficits may be spiraling toward the moon, but the era of shared sacrifices is over. This is the era of entrenched exploitation. All sacrifices will be made by working people and the poor, and the vast bulk of the benefits will accrue to the rich.

Here's Myron Magnet in The Wall Street Journal

Supporters of the old paradigm are naturally apoplectic over such a transformation; and their outrage reveals just how sweeping a welfare state they really champion. As Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman, who resigned from the Clinton administration to protest the president's signing of the 1996 welfare reform, told columnist William Raspberry: "For virtually all of my adulthood, America has had a bipartisan agreement that we ought to provide some basic framework of programs and policies that provide a safety net, not just for the poor but for a large portion of the American people who need help to manage." How large a portion? Well, figures Mr. Raspberry, "the lower third of the economy." Think about that: nearly 100 million Americans as clients of the federal government. This is not temporary assistance but a European-style "social-democratic" (that is, socialist) welfare state. It is the political culture of America's old cities, with their hordes of government-supported clients, employees, and retirees—a culture that has produced slow or negative job and population growth. And this is exactly what the Bush administration does not want.

The failure of the European model, explicitly based on the belief that free-market capitalism is dangerous and needs to be tied down with a thousand trammels, like Gulliver, is one of the signal facts of our era, along with the failure of communism. In Europe, the idea that capitalism creates a permanently jobless class has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as strict regulation and the high taxes needed to pay lavish welfare and unemployment benefits have resulted in half the U.S. rate of job creation, twice the rate of unemployment, and thus little opportunity.

Opportunity and ownership … or welfare state and trampling of property rights?

Three decades ago, another Republican President observed, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." Our government is now dangerously approaching that tipping point, just as many of the socialist governments of Europe already have.

Will we have the courage to change direction and enlarge the horizons of American opportunity, or will we continue the pursuit of a failed "war on poverty"?

The legislative agenda of the next four years will likely spell the answer.

Posted by Rodger on March 26, 2005 at 03:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

And his mommy dresses him funny …

Newssummers300

Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post reviews Richard Bradley's Harvard Rules and finds a scathing indictement of embattled Harvard president Larry Summers:

Though Bradley goes through the motions of giving Summers the benefit of the doubt—"an inspiring teacher," a "successful" mover and shaker in upper-echelon Washington, a survivor of near-fatal cancer—the book is in fact a sustained attack on him, if not an outright hatchet job. Summers in his view is "arrogant, patronizing, disrespectful, and power-hungry," repeatedly guilty of "bad manners," a "prodigious and sloppy eater" with "the general problem of eating and talking at the same time, which sometimes resulted in Summers' spraying saliva on his audience," all in all a man who had failed to cultivate "the social niceties that most people in high-profile jobs possess—gracious manners, a gift for small talk, a knack for putting people at ease."

I knew his table manners were less than perfect—but spraying saliva? My, my. I thought that sort of thing only happened at Yale.

UPDATE: More on the ol' saliva-spewer from an article by Mr. Bradley in Boston Magazine:

When visitors came to his office, Summers propped his feet up on a table, sometimes with his shoes off. He often appeared in public with a toothpick dangling from his mouth. He repeatedly mangled the names of people he was greeting or introducing. If someone said something he deemed uninteresting or foolish, he would conspicuously roll his eyes. Other times Summers would stare into space when being spoken to, as if no one else were in the room. "Larry's always looking away," says one junior professor. "At first you think he's scanning the room for someone more important, but no, he's just looking away." And then there was the recurring problem of his eating and talking at the same time, during which Summers sometimes sprayed saliva on his audience.

Toothpick dangling? Name mangling? Faculty wrangling? I think there's a country-and-western song in here somewhere.

Posted by Rodger on March 26, 2005 at 01:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/24/2005

The new "Arab street"

Iraq_protest_1

Iraqis have taken a page from the playbooks of their neighbors in Lebanon and Qatar in demonstrating against terrorism:

Hundreds of power workers shouting "No, no, to terror!" marched through Baghdad on Thursday to protest attacks that have killed dozens of their colleagues, while demonstrators in the south demanded that the new petroleum minister be from their oil-rich region.

The demonstrations came as negotiators for the two biggest factions in the new National Assembly worked out details of an Iraqi government that U.S. officials hope will pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of coalition forces.

As Arthur Chrenkoff notes, "the 'Arab street' is no longer an entity that rises up to protest every instance of American imperialism, but one which now agitates for freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. How much difference two years can make."

Posted by Rodger on March 24, 2005 at 06:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Blind justice

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The Feds have finally indicted the laser-wielding David Banach under the Patriot Act. The New York Post reports:

A New Jersey man accused of pointing a laser at an airplane, temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot, was indicted yesterday under an anti-terror law.

David Banach also was accused of lying to the FBI about the Dec. 29 incident, in which a small passenger jet's windshield and cabin were hit three times by a green laser as the plane readied to land at Teterboro Airport.

The charges in the three-count federal indictment were similar to those filed against Banach in a complaint by the FBI in January. The indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Newark, replaces the FBI complaint.

Banach's lawyer, Gina Mendola-Longarzo, said her client was using the laser to look at stars with his daughter when the plane was hit by the beam.

"I think it's an absolute abuse of prosecutorial discretion to charge my client under the Patriot Act for non-purposeful conduct," Mendola-Longarzo said.

"We take the alleged actions of Mr. Banach very seriously, and we will not condone lying to federal agents," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said.

So far, the Loony Left has been slow off the mark in voicing its outrage over this trampling of Mr. Banach's civil rights.

But—once they get they get done crowing over their Terri Schiavo victory—I'm sure they'll come around.

Posted by Rodger on March 24, 2005 at 05:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What beautiful and winged life …

Terri

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats. It was not always dry land where we dwell. I see far inland the banks which the stream anciently washed, before science began to record its freshets. Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts,—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb,—heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festal board,—may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854).

(See also Soxblog's eloquent A Life Worth Living? and keep up with developments at TerrisFight.)

UPDATE: Jim Manion passes along these links to Terri's "exit protocol" at the Suncoast Hospice. As Jim correctly observes, it reads "like notes from the Third Reich."  (And if her passing is to be so painless, why are they administering morphine?)

Posted by Rodger on March 24, 2005 at 08:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)