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KARACHI
Today 12 26 38 Sunny
Tomorrow 11 27 38 Sunny
Day after 11 28 38 Sunny
LAHORE
Today 1 20 87 Sunny
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Day after 2 21 87 Sunny
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KARACHI         - 021 LAHORE          - 042 ISLAMABAD    - 051 FAISALABAD   - 041 MULTAN          - 061 PESHAWAR    - 0521 CANADA          - 1 KUWAIT           - 965 INDIA               - 91 IRAN                - 98 U.K                   - 44 U.A.E                - 971 U.S.A                - 1

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  REPORTS FROM GULF & MIDDLE EAST
 
 
 

 

 

Dec 19 - 25, 2005

SAUDI ARABIA BECOMES 149TH WTO MEMBER

Saudi Arabia formally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) last week, and has become the trade body's 149th member and is well set to stage for the Kingdom to play a significant role in global economy.

The Kingdom's formal WTO accession came a month after it was admitted by its member governments on Nov. 11, following 12 years of intense negotiations, and just two days before a key summit in Hong Kong.

WTO Director General Pascal Lamy hailed the membership of Saudi Arabia, which is the world's 13th largest merchandise exporter and 23rd largest importer.

"This is a historic event for the WTO," said Lamy, adding that Riyadh's membership would pave the way for a stronger multilateral trading system.

A high-level Saudi delegation led by Commerce and Industry Minister Hashem Yamani has arrived in Hong Kong to attend the WTO ministerial meeting as a full member. The team includes Transport Minister Jabara Al-Seraisry; State Minister Abdullah Alireza, who is deputy chairman of the Saudi negotiating team; Abdul Wahab Attar, the Kingdom's permanent representative to WTO in Geneva; and Prince Abdul Aziz ibn Salman, assistant minister of petroleum and minerals, who played a leading role in accession talks.

The General Council Chair, Ambassador Amina Mohamed of Kenya, congratulated members for approving the accession of Saudi Arabia. "It is a great honor for me to witness the constructive spirit in which these negotiations have been completed. Members have taken not only a major step toward better international economic cooperation but have also allowed the WTO to become more universal," she said.

Saudi Arabia has been negotiating its membership since July 1993. As a result of the negotiations, the Kingdom has agreed to undertake a series of important commitments to further liberalize its trade regime and accelerate its integration in the world economy, while offering a transparent and predictable environment for trade and foreign investment in accordance with WTO rules.

Saudi Arabia will eliminate any non-tariff measures that cannot be justified under WTO rules while maintaining the right to restrict the import and export of a certain number of goods and services for reasons that include protecting public morals, the life and health of the population and national security interests. It has also agreed to review the list of banned imports on an annual basis.

In accordance with the agreement, the Kingdom will allow foreign insurance companies to open and operate direct branches in the country. A three-year transition period will be given to existing foreign insurance providers to convert to either a Saudi cooperative insurance company or to a direct branch of a foreign insurance company.

Commercial presence of banks will be permitted in the form of locally incorporated joint-stock companies or as international bank branches. The foreign equity cap for joint ventures in banking will be increased to 60 percent. Within three years from accession, Saudi Arabia will allow up to 70 percent foreign equity ownership in the telecommunications sector.

Faisal Alsayrafi, president & CEO of Financial Transaction House, said the WTO membership was a reward for the economic reforms and structural adjustments carried out by the Kingdom in the past years.

"Becoming a member of the global community will present various benefits and challenges to all sectors of the Kingdom," he added, saying that WTO membership will help bring more domestic products to the global marketplace. It will also result in less dependence on the oil industry, increased inflow of foreign direct investments and preparing the Saudi riyal for free float, thus decreasing the pegging subsidy, he said.

"WTO accession is perceived to be a strong driving force to enhance the efficiency and development of private and government sectors. Achieving such international standards will lay the foundation for Kingdom's future development and prosperity of its upcoming generations," Alsayrafi said.

Riyadh-based international business consultant Salim Ghalayini said international competition would encourage national firms and local expertise to become more qualified and competitive. "Business disputes resulting from operations in Saudi Arabia are still a concern to multinational firms," Ghalayini said. "This move will dilute such concerns. The bottom-line is an excellent move that Saudi Arabia cannot afford to lose, but we have to be patient during the initial teething stage," said Ghalayini.

TEHRAN POLLUTION

Air pollution has gripped Tehran to the extent that the cabinet was forced to declare two working days as holidays in the capital last week in order to reduce the suffocating smog blanketing the city.

Health officials have reported that an average of 700 people per day have been hospitalized because of the air pollution.

The lack of wind for many days and the fact that Tehran is surrounded by mountains has allowed a thick layer of smog to hover over the city.

Yet, it is unprecedented that Tehran should be brought to a halt because of pollution. Even though the climatic conditions have intensified the pollution, this problem has been lingering for years and years.

The lack of proper urban planning has caused a population explosion and massive traffic congestion in Tehran. However, this is not the main cause of pollution. The problem lies with the decision-makers. Pollution is not just a problem for Tehran. Other large cities like Mashhad, Shiraz, Isfahan, Ahvaz, and Arak are also grappling with air pollution and heavy traffic.

The roots of the pollution problem and the solution to it are very clear. Gasoline is heavily subsidized and this has led to extravagant use of petrol. A large percentage of the cars plying the streets are dilapidated jalopies, which experts say burn 2 to 2.5 times more fuel than the international standard. In addition, the lax enforcement of traffic regulations, the fact that people are not properly trained to use cars, and, perhaps, most significantly, the lack of an efficient public transportation system, are magnifying the problem.

The solutions are clear: develop an advanced transport system; end petrol subsidies; and introduce a strict traffic code.

But so far there has been no strong will to end this dilemma. The Majlis still approves billions of dollars to import gasoline. Automakers are still producing substandard cars. For example, after some years, the Ministry of Industry and Mines discontinued production of the Paykan, but it is still using the same engine for the Peugeot RD. Technically, this new model causes more pollution because the engine is not able to handle the heavier car.

Catalytic converters should be added to the exhaust systems of cars to reduce harmful emissions. Laws requiring car owners to install these devices have helped to significantly reduce air pollution in many Western cities, but it seems that the idea is not even on the agenda of the Iranian government.

Construction of the Tehran Metro should also be accelerated. There are currently no subway connections on some of the city's busiest transportation routes. The hours of service of the metro and other public transport should also be extended. There is no late night subway service and there are very few night buses, which forces people to use taxis and personal automobiles, exacerbating the pollution problem. Other major cities around the world have 24-hour subways and buses, and such a system would clearly be helpful for the megalopolis of Tehran, where over ten percent of the Iranian population lives.

However, whenever there is a debate on air pollution or high petrol use, officials immediately argue that there are insufficient funds to expand and upgrade the subway system and the rest of the transportation fleet and to replace the old cars with new ones.

But they never explain why both reformist and conservative majority parliaments have allocated billions of dollars for petrol subsidies over the past few years if there is a shortage of funds.

On Sunday, the Majlis speaker expressed concern about the rising level of air pollution in Tehran, but when MPs approve "dollars for combustion", he and other influential parliamentarians don't object, but instead bring up some pretexts and leave the problem to fester for years.

The officials act like isolated islands and do not coordinate their activities. All relevant bodies, like the Department of the Environment, the health and industry ministries, and the Tehran Municipality, as well as the executive branch of the national government and the Majlis, are responsible for the current situation.

For God's sake, stop the waste of national resources and save the people from this slow death in Tehran.

BIRDFLU PREVENTION DURING HAJ

Saudi Arabia has taken adequate precautionary measures to prevent any outbreak of bird flu in the country ahead of the annual Haj.

"No bird flu cases have been reported so far in the Kingdom," said Dr. Khaled Marghalani, a spokesman for the Health Ministry. "We are following up the progress of the disease on the international level," the Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying. He said the ministry had already purchased an adequate quantity of antiviral drug Tamiflu and has signed a memorandum of understanding with the drug manufacturer to ensure its adequate supply.

Dr. Sahl Al-Sabban of the Haj Ministry said his ministry had taken measures to protect pilgrims and prevent any outbreaks of bird flu during the Haj. "We have informed all foreign governments about the health conditions to be fulfilled by their pilgrims," Sabban said, adding that the pilgrims would not be allowed to bring foodstuffs into the Kingdom. He said the ministry would closely monitor pilgrims on arrival and take any suspected cases of avian flu infection to hospitals.

"We will also closely monitor the catering companies which supply food to the pilgrims and ask them to comply with health requirements," he added. He said the Haj Ministry would assign field teams to its emergency and operations departments, the Tawafa organizations and other related pilgrim service agencies in order to monitor safety measures. "We'll mobilize all our resources to carry out health instructions and preventive measures," he added.

Sabban's assurances came amid fears that the more than two million pilgrims who gather in Makkah for the annual Haj would risk creating the conditions in which a pandemic could develop.

The deadly virus cannot pass from person to person as ordinary seasonal flu does, but experts fear it could mutate and then be transmitted from person to person. The risk of mutation would increase if anyone with bird flu came to Makkah and mingled with people suffering from ordinary seasonal flu.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health will launch a major campaign to educate foreign pilgrims on the preventive measures that should be taken during their stay in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

"As part of the program, the ministry will distribute 1.6 million pamphlets in 10 languages to carry its health message among Haj pilgrims during this season," Hamad K. Al-Khowailed, the director of health education and supervisor of Healthy Cities Program in the Ministry of Health, told Arab News yesterday.

He added that the ministry has chalked up a comprehensive program to inform the pilgrims to follow basic health rules. The pamphlets are being printed in English, Arabic and many foreign languages. Al-Khowailed said the ministry is displaying posters at public places within Makkah and Madinah and at pilgrim entry points to pass on the health message.

Arrangements have also been made for the arriving pilgrims at the Haj Terminal to listen to the health messages in several languages.

"Such messages are relayed among different nationalities in their respective languages," the director said, adding that this is being done through loudspeakers fixed to the carts at the terminal.

The handout would advise the pilgrims on their personal cleanliness, environmental health and their general conduct when moving in crowds. Pilgrims are told to wash their hands before they take their food, put waste into proper receptacles and to cough or sneeze covering their mouth and nose with tissues or handkerchiefs. They have also been asked to wash fruits before they eat and are advised not to shave with used blades.

The Health Ministry has mobilized more than 9,000 doctors, nurses and technicians for Haj duty this year, according to Dr. Khaled Al-Sumairy, health director in Makkah. He said a good number of visiting consultants and nurses will also take part in Haj service. "We have readied all hospitals and health centers in Makkah to provide services to pilgrims," Sumairy said.

There are seven hospitals and some 70 clinics in Arafat and Mina in addition to seven government hospitals and 98 medical clinics in Makkah, and eight hospitals and 34 clinics in Madinah. A fleet of 145 ambulances will be deployed in the holy sites.

On instructions given by the Ministry of Health, the Kingdom's foreign mission checks vaccination certificates when it issues Haj visas. Al-Khowailed said arrangements have been made at all entry points to the Kingdom for pilgrims to get vaccinations if necessary. The ministry also broadcasts special Haj programs for pilgrims on radio and television.

INDIAN MOVIES IN GULF

Dubai's second international film festival opened yesterday with movies aimed at bridging the differences between East and West.

The 800-plus VIP guests at the Madinat Jumeirah Arabian Resort included a contingent of Hollywood film stars led by veteran actor Morgan Freeman, Greek-French director Constantin Costa-Gavras and a group of Arab stars headed by Egyptian icon Adel Imam.

British activist and musician Bob Geldof is attending the gala dinner to raise money for the Nelson Mandela fund for aid to Africa, according to organisers.

One of the main films featured in the festival is Albert Brooks' satirical Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The film makes fun of the ignorance of Americans about the Muslim world.

The festival opens with the controversial Palestinian movie Paradise Now about a suicide bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The one-week festival is divided into 13 themed programs, including Arabian Nights, Cinema from the Subcontinent and Insights from Asia.

The festival, which is being held under the patronage of Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister General Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was opened by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, president of the department of civil aviation and chairman of the Emirates Group.

"Dubai has always been a crossroads, a place where the rest of the world comes to meet and do business," said Dubai International Film Festival director and chief executive officer Neil Stephenson.

"Starting tonight, it will also be a place where the rest of the world comes to share their love of film and talk about important world issues," Stephenson said.

RETRIAL FOR NON-PAYMENT OF DUES

The Supreme Federal Court has ordered the retrial of a company that refused to pay Dh50,000 as dues for a worker on its payroll. The court also quashed the verdict of the Court of Appeal, which rejected the

Labour Court ruling that ordered the firm to pay the dues. The worker, Khalid A., filed a lawsuit at the

Sharjah Labour Court against Al Asrar General Enterprises Company demanding the payment of his gratuity.

In his plea, he said he had been working with the company for two years, and it ceased paying him his Dh6,000 basic monthly salary for five months. The Labour Court ordered the company to pay the amount, but the company failed to pay and appealed against the verdict before the court of Appeal, which called for rejecting the verdict. The complainant, however, contested the verdict at the Supreme Federal Court, which quashed the judgment of the appeal court afresh.

The Supreme Federal Court argued that the verdict issued by the Labour Court was appropriate since it was based on sufficient evidence and reasons, which entitles the complainant to get the benefits he demanded. The apex court ordered the retrial of the company by a different panel of judges, and also asked the firm to pay the fee, expenses, and Dh2,000 as lawyer charges the complainant had incurred.

EID FESTIVAL IN DOHA

An action-packed program of fun and entertainment to mark Doha's 2006 Eid al-Adha celebrations is in the final stages of planning.

Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) and Qatar Media Services are planning an exciting five-day Eid festival, possibly starting on January 10.

It will include a wide range of entertainment at numerous venues across Doha, and will also include Wakrah and Al-Khor, involving hundreds of performers and entertainers.

QTA will once again be working together with the National Council for Arts, Culture and Heritage to create traditional Qatari cultural activities specially for the Eid festival .

QATAR'S BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES

Qatar Financial Centre's (QFC) high-powered team, led by HE the Economy and Commerce Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is now in Hong Kong to attract banks and financial institutions in Asia.

After covering London, the delegation is now showcasing Qatar's business opportunities, worth over $130bn to global leaders who are attending the WTO meeting in Hong Kong.

The minister, who will also address the WTO meeting, is accompanied by QFC Regulatory Authority's Phillip Thorpe and QFC Authority chief executive officer and director general Stuart Pearce, with an aim to put Qatar and the QFC before the leading global bankers and to explain the QFC's role in the country's major reform and diversification programme.

"Qatar is offering huge opportunity to banks and financial services organisations in Asia," Sheikh Mohamed, who is also QFC chairman, said addressing top officials of financial institutions.

He stressed that Qatar wants to create a progressive partnership to develop its natural wealth and invest it in order to create a diverse, free market economy.

"In return, we offer new sources of business and revenue streams for banks and other financial institutions," he said.

"This visit, like the one last week in London, supports our efforts to attract leading international banks to join us in our reform and development programme and to help us build a stronger financial services sector with a deep capital market," he added.

The minister is also addressing the on-going World Trade Organisation summit in Hong Kong on the Doha Declaration ñ the proposals for trade reform hammered out at the WTO meeting hosted by Qatar in 2001.

A central pillar of the reform plans driven by HH the Emir is to create an internationally credible financial capital market to be the engine of economic growth.

Accordingly, QFC was set up in May to be a supportive, familiar and trustworthy partner for top-tier international banks who want to participate in Qatar's ambitious investment plans.

Highlighting that Qatar has more than 100 years supply of natural gas at the current maximum extraction rates, he told international banks and financial institutions "we are on course to become the worldís biggest exporter of natural gas".

With an estimated 900tn cu ft of natural gas in the country's North Gas field, Qatar is on way to become the Gas-to-Liquids' capital of the world, Second Deputy Premier and Industry Minister HE Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah had said.

Sheikh Mohamed said the energy projects will attract public/private investment in a region which has hitherto been a large net exporter of capital.

"The QFC will be a catalyst for economic and social development not only in Qatar but in the wider region — perhaps the world's most dynamic emerging market at present," he added.

Presenting a large and diversified programme of projects in Qatar, Sheikh Mohamed said the country will finance over $30bn in new infrastructure projects, $15bn in airport and tourism projects, with eight new luxury hotels being built in Doha and raise over $50bn for oil and gas development.

The QFC has been established so that top financial institutions will have the comfort of operating in a centre with laws and regulations drafted in English, based on best practice in London, Hong Kong and New York ñ and independently regulated by internationally respected regulators.

Thorpe said for the international player, the distinguishing feature of the QFC is that the laws are familiar, transparent and enforceable and the regulations are independent and impartial.

"The aim is to give international financial institutions the confidence that they operate in an environment that can be trusted," he said.

Pearce added QFC has put in place a low risk, low cost and low tax environment.

QFC has already granted three year tax-holiday for firms till 2008 and after that there will be a flat 10% tax only if the entities registered in it made profits. However, there will be no transaction, withholding or personal income taxes and there will be participation exemption for capital gains and dividends.

For many multinationals such tax paid in Qatar will be creditable against (hence reduce incidence) paid in their head office country.

OIL PRODUCERS

Top officials of 15 national oil companies from Asia, Europe, Africa and South America are meeting for three days, under the aegis of Gas Task Force of National Oil Companies Forum, to exchange expertise on technology, commercial dealings, regulations and international relations.

The meeting, which started yesterday and hosted by Qatar Petroleum (QP), will feature field trips to natural gas and petrochemicals projects in Ras Laffan and Mesaieed Industrial cities, where they will be briefed about QP's achievements in natural gas.

In the opening session, Abdullah Hussein Salatt, senior advisor to the Second Deputy Premier HE Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, briefed on four major issues linked to natural gas industry development like technology, market, regulation and international applications on gas business.

The meeting was chaired by QP and co-chaired by Norway-based Statoil, a QP release said.

The Gas Task Force will next meet in Algeria, which will be followed by a final assessment meeting in China in June 2008, the release added.

IPOs restructuring of family-run businesses, Qatar's stock market is slated to witness 10 initial public offers (IPO) in the year 2006 and investment products like Islamic private equity and mortgage-backed securities, Amwal managing director Sheikha Hanadi Nasser bin Khalid al-Thani has said.

"With 10 IPO's slated for FY 2006, numerous advisory opportunities in real estate and restructuring of family groups, the deal flow for investment banking is very robust," Sheikha Hanadi, a leading economist, told the Arab Business Forum that concluded recently.

The role of investment banking is a crucial component for increasing the efficiency of Arab economies, she said.

Observing that "business opportunities are endless and the capital market is reflective of it," she said the country's stock market capital that represents nearly 300% of Qatar's GDP (as of September 2005), has risen over five-fold in the past three years and is poised for further growth."

Going ahead, Qatar aims to consolidate its leadership position through further capital injection. Nearly $100bn is earmarked for investment up to 2010 and GDP projected to grow at more than 10% per annum, Sheikha Hanadi said.

"Economic infrastructure is poised for increased efficiency, while liberalisation of the economy and a greater role for private sector are expected to help attract foreign direct investments," she told the forum comprising 600 financial and political experts.

On the asset management side, she said, there is tremendous demand for investment products such as the IPO funds, Islamic private equity and real estate securitisation opportunities that offer diversification catering to the varying risk-return profile of investors.

Under the visionary leadership of HH the Emir, Qatar boasts of being one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its GDP has doubled in five years, setting a new record in 2004 with an increase of 20% over 2003 to reach $28.5bn, she said.

"Qatar has leapt ahead to becoming the nerve centre of the Arab economy's internationally recognised economic performance," Sheikha Hanadi said.

"Against the backdrop of fast improving macro-economic conditions, enhanced regulatory environment facilitated by the formation of the Qatar Financial Centre and the continuous development of the Qatari capital markets, Qatar's financial industry is taking the country to greater milestones this decade," she added.

Sheikha Hanadi lauded the role of platforms like the Arab Business Forum that help showcase the potential of Arab economies to the international audience. She hoped that Amwal's association with the Qatar Business Foundation in hosting the business meet this year will help induce capital flow into the country.

COST OF SHIPPING CRUDE DECLINES

The cost of shipping crude oil from the Arabian Gulf to Asia on 2mn barrel tankers fell as oil companies and traders finished booking vessels for the month and waited for producers to notify them of January loading dates. Most oil exported from Middle East suppliers such as Saudi Arabia, the world's largest, and Iran is sold on annual contracts.

Suppliers confirm loading dates of cargoes a month in advance so buyers can make shipping arrangements. "I expect rates to ease further as I doubt there'll be much activity this week, especially with the holidays around the corner," said Per Mansson, a broker at Stockholm-based shipbrokers Nor-Ocean Stockholm. Most cargoes scheduled to load in December have been matched with tankers, he said.

Rates on the benchmark route to Singapore were assessed at WS 175 on Tuesday, data from London's Baltic Exchange show. Transport costs are $1.75 a barrel.

Worldscale points are a percentage of a nominal rate, or so-called flat rate, for a specific route. Flat rates, quoted in US dollars a metric ton, are revised annually by the London-based Worldscale Association to reflect changing fuel costs, port tariffs and exchange rates.

Ship owners charge higher rates to move oil from the Arabian Gulf to India because they prefer to book vessels on long-haul routes to countries such as Japan and South Korea.

There were no new VLCC bookings on the benchmark routes to Japan, which were assessed at WS 171 on Tuesday. Costs for the voyage are about WS 160 yesterday following Reliance's booking, Mansson said.

Freight rates for VLCCs have fallen 24% from an 11- month high more than three weeks ago. Charterers delayed booking vessels in anticipation of a drop in shipping costs, allowing the supply of ships to build.

RELIEF GOODS FROM QATAR

TWO relief flights carrying the much-needed aid for victims of October's devastating earthquake in Pakistan leave Doha for Islamabad in what is considered the first major step by the recently-launched "Reach Out to Asia" charity to help those in need.

HE Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, daughter of HH the Emir, will be heading a delegation of officials from Reach Out to Asia and other Qatar-based charities on one of the flights.

The flights - a Qatar Airways aircraft and charter plane - are scheduled to leave Doha International Airport this morning, carrying several tonnes of aid, comprising blankets, sleeping bags and tents.

During her visit to Pakistan, Sheikha Mayassa will meet earthquake survivors as well as government officials and education authorities to discuss the rebuilding efforts of the worst-hit areas. She is also due to meet Sehba Mushrraf, wife of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

The earthquake struck in northeast Pakistan claiming the lives of more than 90,000 people. Several thousands have been left homeless. International aid agencies are worried about further loss of life, primarily due to exposure to the cold weather.

Their priority now is to shelter the homeless from exposure to the mountainous winter weather that has begun to set in. Aid agencies around the world have been working round-the-clock to assist families of victims by providing food, water and shelter.

Since Reach Out to Asia was launched as a charity in Qatar three months ago, more than $20mn has been raised through individual contributions, company donations, as well as a charity auction gala dinner in Doha.

The November 16 charity event was attended by more than 500 guests, including former US president Bill Clinton, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, former gymnast and Olympic gold medallist Nadia Comeneci and Canadian rock star Bryan Adams.

The charity, launched by Qatar Foundation, Qatar Airways and the Doha Asian Games Organising Committee (DAGOC), aims to raise funds for the underprivileged and disadvantaged across Asia.

The charity's first major task is to convert some of the money raised into practical aid for the Pakistan earthquake victims and for survivors of last year's tsunami disaster in southeast Asia that killed more than 200,000 people.

Sheikha Mayassa said: "These are desperate times for the people of Pakistan. Having gone through so much turmoil following the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people are facing the onslaught of one of the worst winters on record."

"The people of Qatar and from around the world have donated generously to the Reach Out to Asia campaign and we are delighted that the efforts of those involved will turn into much-needed physical aid for the Pakistan earthquake victims."

 
 

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