What We Leave Behind

From Kosovo to Lebanon, cluster bomb casualties continue to mount

Frida Berrigan

Said Ul Rahman, 8, is carried by his brother at the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan on December 24, 2001. Ten days earlier Said was injured by an American cluster bomb.

In just one week in Octo­ber, a series of bomb scares swept across Ger­many. Out­side of Han­nover, 22,000 peo­ple were evac­u­at­ed when three bombs were dis­cov­ered. A few days lat­er in the same city, a weapons removal squad defused a 500-pound bomb found near the high­way. Final­ly, a high­way work­er was killed when his cut­ting machine hit a buried bomb on the main high­way into Frankfurt. 

The bombs hadn’t been plant­ed by ter­ror­ists, and they weren’t the open­ing salvos of the next war. The cul­prit was unex­plod­ed ord­nance left over from a war fought more than 60 years ago. We’ll have enough work to keep us busy for the next 100 to 120 years,” the own­er of a bomb-defus­ing com­pa­ny told the New York Times.

The sub­mu­ni­tions dis­persed by clus­ter bombs are a lot small­er than 500 pounds, but their use in every major con­flict since World War II ensures that bomb clear­ers the world over will have work for decades – even cen­turies – to come. From Viet­nam, Laos and Cam­bo­dia, to the coun­tries of the for­mer Yugoslavia, and onto Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, mod­ern bat­tle­fields are lit­tered with bombs that con­tin­ue to kill long after wars have end­ed. Nine­ty-eight per­cent of those killed or injured by clus­ter bombs are civil­ians. And yet inter­na­tion­al efforts to restrict the use of clus­ter bombs – mod­eled after land­mine treaties of pre­vi­ous years – are being under­mined by lack of U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion. Worse, instead of destroy­ing old clus­ter bomb stock­piles, the Unit­ed States is export­ing them to allies around the world. 

What is a clus­ter bomb?

Although var­ied in size and con­fig­u­ra­tion, a clus­ter muni­tion is essen­tial­ly a large can­is­ter – as long as 13 feet and weigh­ing up to 2,000 pounds – packed with bomblets or sub­mu­ni­tions. Launched from the air by fight­er planes, bombers or heli­copters, or shot out of artillery, rock­ets or mis­sile sys­tems, the can­is­ter is designed to break open mid-air, spread­ing the sub­mu­ni­tions over areas as large as two or three foot­ball fields. While some mod­ern sys­tems are out­fit­ted with GPS or infrared guid­ance sys­tems, or wind cor­rec­tion” kits to sta­bi­lize their spin, most are free-falling or grav­i­ty devices. The bomblets – a sin­gle can­is­ter can hold hun­dreds – rang­ing in size from a soda can to a flash­light bat­tery, are packed with shrap­nel and an explo­sive charge. They are meant to explode on impact with the ground, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them from land­mines, which are trig­gered by the victim.

Mil­i­taries through­out the world val­ue clus­ter bombs because a sin­gle vol­ley can impede or slow advanc­ing troops and destroy or ren­der unus­able air­fields and sur­face-to-air mis­sile sites. But the weapons do not always work as designed. Mine removal teams, post-con­flict work­ers, mil­i­tary offi­cials and even the com­pa­nies them­selves admit that wind, weath­er and soil con­di­tions, as well as pos­si­ble mechan­i­cal mal­func­tion or human error, can all dri­ve the dud rate” for these weapons as high as 40 percent. 

Clus­ter bombs are not sin­gled out for pro­hi­bi­tion under inter­na­tion­al law, despite the fact that they can­not dis­tin­guish between civil­ian and com­bat­ant and their effects stretch beyond the dura­tion of hos­til­i­ties – two cru­cial lit­mus tests for muni­tions under the Gene­va Con­ven­tions that gov­ern con­duct dur­ing conflicts. 

Israel’s war against Lebanon: clus­ter bombs on display

Lebanon pro­vides an object les­son in how these tenets of the Gene­va Con­ven­tions are not upheld and how imple­men­ta­tion of exist­ing law is inad­e­quate to the chal­lenge. On August 14, 2006, Israel and Lebanon signed a peace agree­ment end­ing their 34-day war, yet the body count con­tin­ues to rise. Accord­ing to a Novem­ber Hand­i­cap Inter­na­tion­al report, since mid-August, unex­plod­ed ord­nance has killed 21 and wound­ed anoth­er 121 Lebanese civilians. 

An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman insists that all of the weapons and muni­tions used by the IDF are legal accord­ing to inter­na­tion­al law and their use con­forms to inter­na­tion­al stan­dards.” That is cold com­fort for the fam­i­ly of 11-year-old Ramy Shi­bleh, one of the post-war vic­tims. He was gath­er­ing pinecones out­side Hal­ta, a small south­ern town where the Lebanese army had already cleared mines twice. But more bombs remained, includ­ing the one that Ramy and his broth­er hit with their cart of pinecones. Reuters reports that Ramy tried to toss the rock-like object out of the way, but it explod­ed, tear­ing off his right arm and the back of his head and killing him instant­ly. His moth­er keeps the shreds of the yel­low shirt Ramy was wear­ing when he died. He was only pick­ing the pine nuts to buy the toys he loved,” she told reporters. 

With its weapon indus­try and the bil­lions in mil­i­tary aid that it pro­vides to Israel each year, the Unit­ed States is impli­cat­ed in the war and its grim after­math with­out fir­ing one shot or drop­ping one bomb. At least two of Israel’s clus­ter bomb and launch sys­tems are U.S.-manufactured. Human Rights Watch dis­cov­ered rem­nants of the M483A1155mm-artillery pro­jec­tiles, which each con­tain 88 M42 AND M46 sub­mu­ni­tions. The pro­jec­tiles are known as Dual-Pur­pose Improved Con­ven­tion­al Muni­tions” (dual in the sense that they are anti-per­son­nel and anti-vehi­cle) and were devel­oped at the Army’s Cen­ter of Lethal­i­ty” – the Arma­ment Research, Devel­op­ment and Engi­neer­ing Cen­ter in Picatin­ny, New Jer­sey. The researchers also found M26 rock­ets fired from Lock­heed Martin’s Mul­ti­ple Launch Rock­et Sys­tem (MLRS). Each MLRS can fire up to 12 rock­ets at once, and each rock­et con­tains 644 M77 submunitions. 

While the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is respon­si­ble for the vast major­i­ty of the mil­lions of clus­ter bombs used through­out the war, recent reports from Human Rights Watch assert that Hezbol­lah shot a hun­dred or more Chi­nese-made rock­ets packed with clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tions. Dur­ing the war, three civil­ians in north­ern Israel were wound­ed, but as of this writ­ing, there have been no reports of post-con­flict casu­al­ties from these Hezbol­lah weapons. 

The State Depart­ment is inves­ti­gat­ing Israel’s use of Amer­i­can-made clus­ter bombs dur­ing the war in Lebanon – in par­tic­u­lar, whether Israel broke a secret agree­ment made with the Unit­ed States in 1967 not to use clus­ter bombs against civil­ians. In their Octo­ber 2006 report Fore­see­able Harm,” Land­mine Action dis­closed the con­di­tions of the agree­ment, includ­ing the stip­u­la­tion that Israel was to use clus­ter muni­tions only for defen­sive pur­pos­es, against for­ti­fied mil­i­tary tar­gets, and only if attacked by two or more Arab states.’ ” Addi­tion­al­ly, the secret pro­vi­sions pro­hib­it use of the bombs except against reg­u­lar forces of a sov­er­eign nation” and in spe­cial wartime con­di­tions,” accord­ing to the admin­is­tra­tion and con­gres­sion­al offi­cials. The arrange­ment gave the IDF greater lat­i­tude than the typ­i­cal reg­u­la­tions that require for­eign gov­ern­ments to use U.S.-origin mil­i­tary items sole­ly for inter­nal secu­ri­ty and legit­i­mate self-defense. 

There have not been any fol­low-up reports in the media on the sta­tus of the State Department’s inves­ti­ga­tion, or its con­clu­sions. Calls to the Office of Defense Com­pli­ance by In These Times request­ing more infor­ma­tion were not returned. But it does not take months of care­ful study to con­clude that the IDF fla­grant­ly vio­lat­ed U.S. law as well as the secret agree­ment made to skirt that law, to say noth­ing of the Gene­va Conventions. 

And then there is the tim­ing. Dur­ing the last three days of the war – as the final touch­es on the peace agree­ment were being made – Israel dumped an esti­mat­ed 1.2 mil­lion bomblets through­out Lebanon, a coun­try small­er than Con­necti­cut. Jan Ege­land, the U.N. Under-Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al for Human­i­tar­i­an Affairs and Emer­gency Relief Coor­di­na­tor, was decid­ed­ly undiplo­mat­ic in his assess­ment: What is shock­ing and, I would say, to me, com­plete­ly immoral is that 90 per­cent of the clus­ter bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the con­flict, when we knew there would be a resolution.” 

With their fail­ure rate of up to 40 per­cent, more than one of every three bombs may not det­o­nate imme­di­ate­ly – lying in wait for chil­dren, trucks and livestock. 

While the IDF has not explained their deci­sion to sat­u­rate south­ern Lebanon with bombs, an Octo­ber 6 New York Times arti­cle posits that Israel want­ed to inflict as much last minute harm on Hezbol­lah as pos­si­ble, or slow the repop­u­la­tion of bor­der com­mu­ni­ties. An unnamed Israeli com­man­der of a rock­et unit in Lebanon told Haaretz on Sep­tem­ber 12 that the sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing with clus­ter weapons was insane and mon­strous; we cov­ered entire towns in clus­ter bombs.” 

The sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing has effec­tive­ly crip­pled agri­cul­ture. Farm­ers’ fields and orchards are now mine­fields and their crops are rot­ting on the stalk. The sum­mer tobac­co, wheat, and fruit, as well as late-yield­ing crops like olives, can­not be har­vest­ed and win­ter crops, like lentils and chick­peas, have not been plant­ed because farm­ers can­not plow their fields. Many of the two to three dai­ly casu­al­ties are poor farm­ers des­per­ate to feed their fam­i­lies from fields that are now de fac­to minefields. 

Rida Noured­dine, an olive and wheat farmer whose land is lit­tered with clus­ter bombs, feels the frus­tra­tion of many south­ern Lebanese who are depen­dent on the land. He told the New York Times, I feel as though some­one has tied my arms, or is hold­ing me by my neck, suf­fo­cat­ing me because this land is my soul.” 

Clus­ter bombs in the eyes of the world

With the spot­light on Israel’s use of clus­ter bombs in Lebanon and the fail­ure of inter­na­tion­al law to stop the car­nage there, the call for a ban on clus­ter bombs sim­i­lar to the pro­hi­bi­tion on land­mines is grow­ing loud­er. Bel­gium insti­tut­ed a ban and Ger­many announced their troops will no longer use clus­ter weapon­ry. Aus­tralia and Nor­way have declared a mora­to­ri­um. Swe­den, Mex­i­co, the Vat­i­can and the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross are all call­ing for a ban. 

The mod­el for their efforts is the Land­mine Ban or Ottawa Treaty,” which entered into force in March 1999. The treaty pro­hibits the man­u­fac­ture, trade and use of anti-per­son­nel mines, oblig­es sign­ing coun­tries to destroy stock­piles with­in four years and clear their own ter­ri­to­ry with­in 10 years, and urges gov­ern­ments to help poor­er coun­tries clear land and assist land­mine vic­tims. Non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions like Land­mine Action and the Men­non­ite Cen­tral Com­mit­tee argue that once a clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tion hits the ground, it is essen­tial­ly a land­mine and should be barred under the treaty. 

The Unit­ed States is not among the 151 states that have rat­i­fied the Land­mine Ban, and the Bush Administration’s Feb­ru­ary 2004 land­mine pol­i­cy reserves the right to use so-called self-destruc­t­ing mines” through 2010. Israel, Bur­ma, North Korea and 36 oth­er coun­tries also remain out­side the inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus ban­ning landmines. 

Anoth­er pos­si­ble tool for anti-clus­ter bomb cam­paign­ers is the 1980 Con­ven­tion on Cer­tain Con­ven­tion­al Weapons (CCW). As rat­i­fied, the Con­ven­tion pro­hibits or restricts the use of weapons that cause exces­sive injuries or have indis­crim­i­nate effects on peo­ple – includ­ing weapons that leave unde­tectable frag­ments in the human body, mines and boo­by-traps, incen­di­ary weapons (such as white phos­pho­rus used by the Unit­ed States in Iraq and Israel in Lebanon) and blind­ing laser weapons. 

In Novem­ber 2003, a fifth pro­to­col, address­ing Explo­sive Rem­nants of War” like clus­ter weapon duds, was added. So far, only 26 nations have signed on to Pro­to­col V and agreed to nego­ti­ate respon­si­bil­i­ty for clear­ance, pro­vide risk edu­ca­tion to the local pop­u­la­tion, improve the reli­a­bil­i­ty of muni­tions through vol­un­tary best prac­tices,” and con­tin­ue to imple­ment exist­ing inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law. These are use­ful mea­sures, but they do not address the use of clus­ter bombs, just what to do after they have land­ed. In addi­tion, rat­i­fi­ca­tion by many more coun­tries – espe­cial­ly by coun­tries like Israel and the Unit­ed States that are using these weapons – is need­ed for the effort to be more than symbolic. 

The CCW’s Third Review Con­fer­ence ran from Novem­ber 7 – 17 in Gene­va. The Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and oth­er key NGOs and nations see an imme­di­ate freeze on the use of inac­cure­ate and unre­li­able clus­ter muni­tions as a wor­thy out­come of the meet­ing along with elim­i­na­tion of stock­piles of lega­cy sys­tems, and a com­plete ban on the use of clus­ter muni­tions against mil­i­tary tar­gets in pop­u­lat­ed areas. ICRC will hold an inter­na­tion­al expert meet­ing” in 2007 as a first step toward a new glob­al pact on clus­ter weapons. Against the back­drop of Lebanon’s suf­fer­ing, there is broad sup­port for these steps. But main­tain­ing the sense of urgency will not be easy, espe­cial­ly in the face of diplo­mat­ic foot-drag­ging by key states like the Unit­ed States, which says Pro­to­col V is an ade­quate response to clus­ter weapons (even though the Unit­ed States has not yet rat­i­fied the mea­sure). In advance of the meet­ing, the State Depart­ment assert­ed sup­port for Pro­to­col V, but cau­tioned that it is not inter­est­ed in nego­ti­at­ing new rules on clus­ter muni­tions or oth­er explo­sive rem­nants of war.” 

Con­cert­ed and gen­uine sup­port from the Unit­ed States (as a world leader and one of the largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of clus­ter bombs) for ban­ning clus­ter bombs won’t bring Ramy back to his griev­ing fam­i­ly, and it won’t restore Rida’s orchards and liveli­hood, but it could ensure that future gen­er­a­tions do not share their suffering. 

U.S. clus­ter weapons: vital, ver­sa­tile and vicious

While the Unit­ed States has not rat­i­fied the land­mine treaty or the CCW, and does not indi­cate any will­ing­ness to accept even par­tial respon­si­bil­i­ty for this summer’s bru­tal war, the Pen­ta­gon is con­cerned about clus­ter weapons. In an Octo­ber 2004 report to Con­gress, the Depart­ment of Defense described clus­ter muni­tions as vital” and ver­sa­tile,” but mil­i­tary offi­cials admit they are keen­ly aware of and inter­est­ed in reduc­ing our clus­ter muni­tions dud rates and improv­ing the accu­ra­cy of the deliv­ery meth­ods.” Con­se­quent­ly, the Pen­ta­gon recent­ly adopt­ed the Cohen Pol­i­cy,” named after for­mer Defense Sec­re­tary William Cohen, which requires the mil­i­tary to only pur­chase new clus­ter weapons that have a 1 per­cent or small­er dud rate. 

Human Rights Watch esti­mates that the U.S. has a stock­pile of 1 bil­lion old, unre­li­able and inac­cu­rate” clus­ter muni­tions. Some of the so-called lega­cy” weapons have been dis­man­tled, but the Defense Depart­ment con­tin­ues to trans­fer clus­ter weapons and deliv­ery sys­tems to allies around the world. The Defense Depart­ment ana­lyzed var­i­ous sub­mu­ni­tions and found fail­ure rates of 3 to 23 per­cent under test con­di­tions, but mil­i­tary offi­cials and oth­ers acknowl­edge that these rates can be exac­er­bat­ed by envi­ron­men­tal factors.

The Army, Marines and oth­er mil­i­tary ser­vices are request­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for new clus­ter weapons and the retro­fitting of exist­ing sys­tems to con­form to the Cohen pol­i­cy. Weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers have adapt­ed to the new pol­i­cy, and their pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al empha­sizes the lim­it­ed foot­print” and tar­getable” nature of their weapons. In vivid mil­i­tary jar­gon, weapons man­u­fac­tur­er Tex­tron describes the CLAW (Clean Light­weight Area Weapon) as the next gen­er­a­tion smart soft tar­get muni­tion.” (For those not famil­iar with the lin­go, a soft tar­get is a per­son.) The Rhode Island-based com­pa­ny boasts that a sin­gle 64-pound muni­tion has the foot­print and effec­tive­ness of a 1,000 lb. lega­cy clus­ter bomb.” 

The Cohen pol­i­cy and the new weapons it has spawned ensures that despite what­ev­er progress is made in Gene­va and at oth­er inter­na­tion­al fora to ban clus­ter bombs, the eight U.S. com­pa­nies that pro­duce clus­ter weapons, includ­ing rec­og­niz­able names like Tex­tron, Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, L‑3 Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Lock­heed Mar­tin and Northrop Grum­man, will con­tin­ue to man­u­fac­ture the sys­tems and the mil­i­tary will keep using them. 

The Unit­ed States may well be the largest pro­duc­er, but it is not alone. Human Right Watch asserts that 33 oth­er coun­tries pro­duce more than 210 dif­fer­ent types of clus­ter muni­tions. And at least 12 oth­er coun­tries have trans­ferred clus­ter muni­tions to as many as 58 nations. 

U.S. bombs at work

In its 2004 report, the Pen­ta­gon acknowl­edged the poten­tial dan­ger to non-com­bat­ants posed by UXO [unex­plod­ed ord­nance]” and declared that it had devel­oped strict rules of engage­ment and tar­get­ing method­olo­gies, intend­ed to min­i­mize risks to civil­ians in or near the zone of con­flict.” But, in a world far removed from law, pol­i­cy and dud rate cal­cu­la­tions, clus­ter weapons con­tin­ue to do what they are designed for.

A quick look at some of the war zones of the last 20 years should be enough to make anti-clus­ter bomb cam­paign­ers out of just about anyone. 

Accord­ing to Hand­i­cap Inter­na­tion­al, in 1999, the Unit­ed States and allies dropped more than 2,000 clus­ter bombs on the ter­ri­to­ry of for­mer Yugoslavia, where the stat­ed aim was human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion. Human Rights Watch doc­u­ment­ed that clus­ter strikes killed 90 to 150 civil­ians and injured many more, con­sti­tut­ing up to 23 per­cent of the total civil­ian deaths in the con­flict, even though clus­ter bombs amount­ed to just 6 per­cent of bombs dropped. 

A few years lat­er in Afghanistan, the goal was dif­fer­ent, but the results were sim­i­lar. From Octo­ber 2001 to March 2002, in a bid to top­ple the Tal­iban, the Unit­ed States dropped about 1,228 clus­ter bombs, rep­re­sent­ing about 5 per­cent of the U.S. bombs dropped dur­ing that time peri­od. Accord­ing to Hand­i­cap Inter­na­tion­al, there were 121 casu­al­ties due to clus­ter bombs dur­ing the same peri­od, but it is impos­si­ble to link them all to the Unit­ed States, as both the Sovi­et Union and the Tal­iban had used clus­ter muni­tions in pre­vi­ous wars. In an Octo­ber 2001 inci­dent, a U.S. clus­ter bomb appar­ent­ly intend­ed for a near­by mil­i­tary base fell on the small com­mu­ni­ty of Qala Shater, caus­ing 11 to 13 deaths. Casu­al­ties includ­ed a 17-year-old boy named Najibul­lah who died in front of his home and 70-year-old Faqir Mohammed. 

Iraq: a steel rain’s gonna fall

Over the last 15 years, Iraq has borne the brunt of U.S. clus­ter bomb use. Dur­ing the First Gulf War, Hand­i­cap Inter­na­tion­al esti­mates that the Unit­ed States dropped 47,167 air-deliv­ered clus­ter muni­tions con­tain­ing more than 13 mil­lion sub­mu­ni­tions. In one day alone – Feb­ru­ary 21, 1991 – U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel fired a total of 220,248 M77 sub­mu­ni­tions from the Mul­ti­ple Launch Rock­et Sys­tem made by Lock­heed Mar­tin. Dur­ing the war, the company’s sig­na­ture sys­tem was dubbed steel rain.” The 1991 air war” last­ed just 43 days, but in the years that fol­lowed more than 4,000 civil­ians have been killed or injured by clus­ter muni­tion duds. Iraqi civil­ians were not the only casu­al­ties – at least 80 U.S. sol­diers have been injured by clus­ter munitions. 

In 2003, one of the ear­li­est report­ed uses of clus­ter weapons dur­ing Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom was also one of the most grue­some. U.S. clus­ter weapons fired on the al-Hilla com­mu­ni­ty killed 33 and injured anoth­er 109. Accord­ing to Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Injured sur­vivors told reporters how the explo­sives fell like grapes’ from the sky, and how bomblets bounced through the win­dows and doors of their homes before exploding.” 

In the peri­od between shock and awe” and mis­sion accom­plished,” the U.S. and U.K. forces dropped between 1,300 and 1,500 clus­ter muni­tions from the air, and anoth­er 11,600 from land-based sys­tems. The death toll from these assaults has been dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late. Hand­i­cap Inter­na­tion­al places at least a por­tion of the blame for that dif­fi­cul­ty on the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sion­al Author­i­ty, say­ing that “[d]uring the 2003 con­flict and its after­math, the CPA strong­ly dis­cour­aged casu­al­ty data col­lec­tion, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to clus­ter sub­mu­ni­tions.” The report goes on to note that, as of Sep­tem­ber, there is still no data col­lec­tion mech­a­nism for track­ing new casu­al­ties in Iraq. 

Ban it all

Indis­crim­i­nate weapon­ry like clus­ter bombs hides who is respon­si­ble and removes cul­pa­bil­i­ty. With­out respon­si­bil­i­ty, how can there be law? The big bomb releas­es the lit­tle bombs, which might kill a sol­dier tomor­row, a farmer next month, or a child a year from now. Clus­ter bomb­ing is dif­fer­ent from straf­ing a vil­lage, mas­sacring a fam­i­ly or exe­cut­ing a sus­pect­ed mil­i­tant. Hands and con­sciences remain clean while bod­ies are shred­ded and pulped. There is no My Lai mas­sacre or No Gun Ri atroc­i­ty with clus­ter weapons. Rather, a per­ma­nent state of ter­ror is cre­at­ed where all human activ­i­ty is dan­ger­ous and costly. 

Recent expe­ri­ence in Lebanon, Iraq and else­where demon­strates the grave and last­ing con­se­quences of clus­ter bombs, and reveals the short­com­ings of exist­ing inter­na­tion­al law and its enforce­ment. Weapons that indis­crim­i­nate­ly kills long after hos­til­i­ties have abat­ed is an anath­e­ma to inter­na­tion­al law – and human decen­cy. It is time to ban them all.

Fri­da Berri­g­an is a senior pro­gram asso­ciate with the New Amer­i­ca Foun­da­tion’s Arms and Secu­ri­ty Ini­tia­tive and a mem­ber of the Cam­paign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World.
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