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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Hostage Beheaded in Saudi Arabia

Aired June 18, 2004 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: If you're just tuning in to our breaking news, we are following the story that American hostage Paul Johnson has been beheaded.
Right now we have gotten word from the bureau chief of al Arabiya Television that he has seen the videotape of the beheading, also three chilling photographs on an Islamic Web site show the beheaded body of this American hostage, Paul Johnson, who was captured a week ago by Islamic militants connected with al Qaeda, a man by the name of Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, a self-proclaimed military leader of this al Qaeda group in Saudi Arabia, a group by the name of al Fallujah Squadron.

He was kidnapped on Saturday. The statement now coming across the Web site: "We gave you the deadline, but you did not respect it. This is," the statement continues, "This is what we promised to do."

A 72-hour deadline was given by this terrorist group. In exchange, they would give Paul Johnson for freed jail militants. That, of course, did not happen. Now, we are reporting that American hostage Paul Johnson has, indeed, been beheaded by these terrorists.

We want to bring in Eric Haney, former member of the elite Delta Force. He also spent time guarding the Saudi family.

Eric, first of all, I want to talk to you about the hunt for these killers. And you know the Saudi family, you know more than well know how this -- how they will react.

ERIC HANEY, FORMER DELTA FORCE MEMER: Yes, I've got it and she's talking to me.

PHILLIPS: Can you hear me OK, Eric?

HANEY: Yes.

PHILLIPS: That's OK. I know you're working your sources and getting information right now. What I'm asking you is -- is about the hunt for these killers, these terrorists and what's going to happen right now from a military perspective, from the Saudis perspective.

HANEY: Well, from the U.S. perspective it's in the Saudi hands, and the Saudis have been reluctant -- it's a mild word. The Saudis have almost totally refused to ever cooperate with U.S. authorities over any incident within Saudi Arabia. They've been extremely obstructionist.

And the principal reason for that is there are so many ties in the Saudi security services and intelligence services with al Qaeda and other extremist groups. So don't look for anything drastic to happen right now.

Anything that the Saudis have done also in the past, they've moved very quickly when they've captured someone to execute them almost immediately. And a lot of that has to do with just protecting some people who were placed with inside the police and the security of Saudi Arabia.

PHILLIPS: Eric, put this into perspective for us. Because I thought Saudi Arabia was a strong ally of the United States, that there was a strong relationship here.

We talked a lot about the relationship between the Saudis and the Bush dynasty. When I say the Bush dynasty, I talk about the president and his father.

And you have Americans like Paul Johnson living in Saudi Arabia, helping this economy. Someone who showed a tremendous amount of respect toward the nation of Islam, to Muslims.

It seems hard to believe -- I mean you're saying it. You're saying it's in the Saudi hands and formerly, they have not been supportive in pursuing something like this, but isn't it time for that to change? I mean, it's not -- at least, this is not getting any better.

At what point did the Saudis say OK, we cannot tolerate this; we have got to take action?

HANEY: Well, the Saudis have been taking some tentative action, but it's been very lukewarm. And that's what provoked al Qaeda to move back to its original objective, and that is to depose the Saudi monarchy and to establish a radical Islamic regime inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, within the soul of Saudi Arabia.

We have to remember, the ideological homeland of extreme version of Islam is from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia; most of al Qaeda's members have come from Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers are Saudis; the bulk of the prisoners at Guantanamo are Saudis. That's just a real fact.

When we think of the Saudis as allies, let's think of them, really, as just people that we do an extreme amount of business with, but with whom we have a great cultural -- cultural difference. And we in the West and particularly in the United States have failed to understand that.

And the objective here with the beheading of this man is to further drive Western workers, those professionals and craftsman and technicians, out of Saudi Arabia to hasten the collapse of the kingdom.

PHILLIPS: So you're saying that the more Westerners are driven out of Saudi Arabia, the more that situations like this occur, that you're saying it could lead to a tremendous economic hardship for Saudi Arabia?

HANEY: Well, it's going to further exacerbate it. There are just so many things that apply on this. But the Saudi monarchy has been complicit. And more than just complicit, historically. And this is something that we know quite well and the scholars of that region of the world know this.

That the house of al-Saudi, the ruling family, has been entwined with the Wahhabist movement since the 18th Century. And they support one another. It's a theocracy there.

And it's worked quite well until the last ten years with the rise of al Qaeda when bin Laden, in his messianic view, said the monarchy is so corrupt, it must be replaced, and it must be replaced by a pure Islamic regime. And that's been the objective all along of al Qaeda.

It's not to destroy the American government or to change our way of life or convert anybody to Islam. It's to form that pure Islamic government based on the soil of Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam. And this is part of that guerilla warfare to bring that about.

PHILLIPS: Do you find it ironic, at all, Eric, that you, as a former member of the elite Delta Force, have guarded the Saudi family and now this beheading, this horrific beheading of an American living and working in that country that there will be, as you say, tentative action to finding these killers?

HANEY: Sure. I guess ironic is the best word, but it's just part of the life in the world that we live in in these times. And this is going to further deteriorate before it ever starts to get better. Saudi Arabia, the government and the nation, is rapidly approaching a time of genuine crisis in what that nation will be in its view.

And I'll give you this, with Mr. Johnson that beheading, this killing, was merely to establish the bone fides of the group that perpetrated this act. That's why their demand was something that was unreasonable and couldn't be met. That's why the person they grabbed was a person without real power. Other than the fact that it's a horrific act.

The next captures that come about, maybe someone similar to Mr. Johnson, but eventually this group is going to grab someone, some Westerner who is either a political person or a person of such a corporate and financial standing that they do have power. And it will provoke both the Saudi and the U.S. governments into some real hard action.

And what they're hoping that action will be will be an overreaction so that it brings about increased repression inside Saudi Arabia, which influences the populace in their hatred and their disgruntlement towards the government. It's part of classic guerilla warfare that we're experiencing now.

PHILLIPS: Sergeant Major Eric Haney, a former member of the elite Delta Force; also had the assignment of guarding the Saudi family. Thank you, Eric -- Miles.

HANEY: Of course.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let's turn it over now to CNN's Kelli Arena, who joins us now from Washington -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Miles, I can tell you that right now we have no official U.S. reaction from any of the agencies here in Washington. Officials have, obviously, seen the pictures, have heard the reports, but as one official said, we have not seen a body yet. They are working on trying to get some official confirmation so that they can make a statement.

But I can tell you that we did speak to a senior State Department official who continues to warn against Americans remaining in the kingdom. There are, as you know, about 30,000 Americans working in Saudi Arabia. The State Department urging those Americans to leave, perhaps take a leave of absence over the hot summer months, come back to the United States.

They do believe at the State Department that Americans will continue to be targets. We have seen at least two other Americans, besides Paul Johnson, killed in recent weeks. And State Department firmly believes that we will see other Americans targeted, that they remain very vulnerable in Saudi Arabia.

As for where we go forward from here, as you know, the FBI has sent a team of about 20 hostage and rescue specialists to work with the Saudis on the effort to find Mr. Johnson. There is already in place a U.S.-Saudi task force that deals with issues of terrorism and terrorism-related crimes. There is a strong presence of law enforcement officials, U.S. law enforcement officials in Saudi Arabia.

And I'd like to follow up a little bit on what our previous guest just said. You know, law enforcement officials who are on the ground there, and I'm talking about men who work with the FBI, have said that they have seen a very significant change in the way that Saudi Arabia has started cooperating with the United States on investigations, on moves toward preventing terrorist acts.

They've seen that sea change occur after the bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was the first time that the kingdom was targeted by al Qaeda or related groups. And that really, they say, was the beginning of a sea change and that there has been much more transparency, much more cooperation, much more of a willingness to allow Americans in on those investigations right from the very beginning.

Of course, this is something that happened on Saudi soil, so they -- they do remain the lead investigative unit here, but we do expect that members of the FBI and some other agencies will work side by side to try to bring Paul Johnson's killers to justice.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Kelli Arena in Washington, thank you very much.

Let's turn it back over to Octavia Nasr, senior editor for Arab affairs. I want to pick up on that point. Eric Haney first brought it out, that -- the fact that Saudis, for whatever reason, perhaps the secrecy of the kingdom, over the years have been accused of being obstructionist when there is a joint investigation.

Kelli's point just now is that that just changed. There's a sea change, a sense of cooperation. Walk us through that. Why the obstruction in the first place and why now the sense of cooperation? What has changed?

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SENIOR EDITOR FOR ARAB AFFAIRS: Well, what has changed is a lot of pressure from the U.S., for one. You remember, we're in the middle of the war on terrorism, and most of the hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia. A lot of the financing for al Qaeda came from Saudi Arabia.

So it was time for the Saudi government to -- to start doing something about it in order to prove that it is, indeed, fighting terrorism and not harboring it.

Now, the change came slowly, but at the same time, I think people always misunderstand this idea of al Qaeda. What is al Qaeda? It's not like they have an office and a phone number and a P.O. box number or something.

I mean, these are, at this point, they are an underground group. They're not, even if they exist all over the world -- take today's example. You have a group that calls itself the al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. Is this an offshoot of al Qaeda? Is this the same al Qaeda?

MATTHEWS: I'm sorry. Octavia, I'm going to jump in for just a moment. We have Secretary of State Colin Powell with the microphone. We'll get back to you in a moment.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: ... that Mr. Johnson. We, of course, totally condemn this action. It's an action of barbarism, an action that shows, once again, what the world is dealing with with these kind of individuals who behead somebody or murder somebody in cold blood, an innocent individual who was just trying to help people and trying to do his job.

And, if anything, it will cause us, I'm quite confident it will cause our Saudi colleagues to redouble our efforts to go after terrorists wherever they are, wherever they are trying to hide and to go after those who support this kind of terrorist activity.

And so, waiting to hear more from Saudi Arabia. Our thoughts are with Mr. Johnson's family. They have shown a great deal of courage during this trying time, this difficult time for them. And my thoughts are with them, and our thoughts are with them. And we're waiting to get the final confirmations. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary...

O'BRIEN: Secretary of State -- Secretary of State Colin Powell at State Department headquarters in Washington, brief statement, obviously, no questions.

Let's pick up on the point we were just making about Saudi cooperation or the perception of the lack thereof. You're making that point about al Qaeda not necessarily being a bricks and mortar operation. It's an underground group. Why don't you press on with that?

NASR: It has so many branches at this point. I mean, you have a group in Southeast Asia. You have those in Iraq and then Saudi Arabia. And then, when you have a car bomb in Turkey you have al Qaeda claiming responsibility.

So where is al Qaeda and what it is, is very hard to define at this point.

The Saudis are cracking down on extremist groups, but a lot of observers, especially in the Arab region, will tell you that al Qaeda still has a lot of support inside Saudi Arabia. So, the Saudi government does have a huge job ahead. It's not going to be easy.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's talk a little bit about this notion that all this upswell of support from within Saudi Arabia, in some way, might have gotten to these terrorists and helped Paul Johnson.

In effect, they are at war with the Saudi kingdom, as much as they are with the United States. Perhaps more so. So, in a sense, all that support that he received from Saudis might very well have backfired and actually hurt his cause.

NASR: Yes, there is a chance of that. Remember, the ultimate goal of al Qaeda is to get all the Westerners, you know, what they call the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula. They don't want any foreigners there. They don't want any Americans there. So the ultimate goal is to drive all these Westerners out.

So any Westerner that goes there and is a friend of the Saudi government remember, the Saudi government is the enemy, as well. And we have to make all these distinctions in order to understand, is that outpour of support important to save the life of someone or is it going to help get them killed?

A few weeks ago another Islamist Web site posted a message warning Muslims not to deal with any infidels. Basically, they were telling them, if you deal with the infidel, that means you can be a target. So now, if you're Muslim, if you're an Arab and you're dealing with a Westerner, that makes you a target for them, as well.

O'BRIEN: Quick final point before we go back to Kyra. I just want to -- The point that Kelli Arena just made, the U.S. government saying Americans should leave Saudi Arabia; they're in great peril. That plays right into the strategy that al Qaeda is trying to go after, doesn't it?

NASR: Absolutely. That's -- That's exactly what they want. Their ultimate goal is to drive Westerners out of the Arabian Peninsula. In their threats and their messages that they post on Web sites or elsewhere, that's what they say: "We're going to keep doing this until we drive every Westerner out of the Arabian Peninsula." Simple.

O'BRIEN: Octavia Nasr, stay close. We'll be getting back to you -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: We're going to pick it up here with Mike Brooks, former FBI counterterrorism. You obviously work for CNN now.

Let's talk about the FBI's involvement. First of all, how the FBI was brought in when the process of trying to spare Paul Johnson's life was going forward.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN ANALYST: The FBI has had a presence in Saudi Arabia for a number of years. After the Khobar Towers bombing, they developed a legal attache office in Riyadh to have a constant contact with the Saudi government.

But over the last couple of days, as Kelli Arena would say, there have been a large number of FBI experts that have been brought in to assist in trying to locate and also trying to put off, you know, anything at all that would happen to him.

You had hostage negotiators. You had tactical experts there talking about hostage rescue, because you have to deal with the hostage negotiation side and the hostage rescue side. They have to work hand in hand together if, in fact, they did find him and were able to rescue him.

But you also had the U.S. State Department and the Saudi government. The Saudi government, this time, I'm told by sources, was cooperating very well. We have seen other times that they haven't.

PHILLIPS: Well, let's go back for a minute to when you were a hostage negotiator and you've to take individuals like these extremists -- you know, are they criminals, are they crusaders? Tell me how you box them and then how you deal with them.

BROOKS: Well, you basically -- There's three classifications, if you will. Criminals, crusaders and the folks with mental -- we saw criminals, crusaders and crazies, the three "C's." But the most difficult of these are the crusaders, such as what we see with this group. Either political or religious. In this you've got a kind of overlapping of both, both political and both religious.

PHILLIPS: I think they're crusaders, but, I mean, these are such -- I mean, obviously, acts, tremendous acts of cowardice behavior.

BROOKS: True.

PHILLIPS: And you can't negotiate with these types, can you? I mean, can you ever negotiate with these so-called crusaders?

BROOKS: The last couple of days and when hostages have been taken before, I've been speaking with my former colleagues, some of which are still in law enforcement, hostage negotiators. And after they gave -- after we saw this video and they gave the 72-hour deadline, they were -- we were hoping for the best and hoping that there could be some resolution to this. But a lot of negotiators that I was talking to and myself, we weren't holding much -- much hope. Because of that 72-hour deadline.

You try to work through these deadlines any way you can. Most -- The best way, of course, is direct contact. But there was no direct contact with them. It was always through an intermediary. But there was no direct contact during that 72-hour period.

PHILLIPS: All right. Let's talk about this relationship again. A lot of us -- Eric Haney, former Delta Force; Octavia has been talking about it from the perspective of Muslim affairs.

Now from an FBI perspective and your experience, this relationship between the Saudi government and the U.S. and fighting terrorism. You covered Khobar Towers. Is there a bigger effort now on behalf of Saudis to weed out terrorism? Is it still the same? Is it -- Is it worse?

BROOKS: Well, we first got to Khobar Towers -- We were the first one -- C-140 that took off from Andrews Air Force Base, and the first American team on the ground after the bombing on June 25, 1996.

As soon as we got there, especially and right after the Saudi Arabia National Guard bombing, where we lost five Americans in 1995, the year prior. As soon as we got there they thought -- the first thing they thought was Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda.

But then we found out during the 9/11 commission hearings, and then during the investigation it came out that it was most likely Irani-backed Hezbollah. But then recently in the last number of days, we heard that it could have been al Qaeda that was involved in this, maybe not Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Or maybe both. So we really don't know.

But all along investigators who have been working on this case have told me, and it's been the thinking, that al Qaeda has had a presence and could have had a role to play in the bombing in 1996.

PHILLIPS: And it's a new world now, this war on terrorism, a lot of pressure on the Saudis, a lot of pressure on the U.S. Will the Saudis have to take a more aggressive role? Will things have to change? I mean, Americans cannot continue to be beheaded.

BROOKS: They can't. It has to change somehow, Kyra. We heard that on the cooperation side on this particular case, the Saudis were cooperating very well in trying to find -- in trying to find him before something like this happened.

But then we go back to 1996 during Khobar Towers and the cooperation, we were working the evidence. We were going through and doing a lot of sifting work. And all of a sudden pieces would come up from the Saudis. They would bring these large pieces of the truck, the delivery truck the bomb at Khobar Towers. And we wondered, where is this coming from?

We weren't getting much cooperation then. On the investigative side there was also -- they were butting heads. But hopefully, we'll get better cooperation in the future.

PHILLIPS: All these killers should be brought to justice. Mike Brooks, thank you.

BROOKS: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Miles.

O'BRIEN: Once again, to recap, a shadowy group known as the Fallujah Squadron, the self-proclaimed al Qaeda representatives on the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, have apparently, coincident with the 72-hour deadline they had imposed, have executed Paul Johnson, a contractor with Lockheed Martin who had been working in Saudi Arabia for quite some time.

We've gotten this from multiple sources, as well as some very stark, difficult images on a Web site, an Islamist Web site. Word has obviously filtered all throughout the world and, of course, his family had been bracing for this possibility.

CNN's Deb Feyerick is in southern New Jersey and has had some contact with the family all throughout this.

Deb, what can you tell us about them and how they're holding up?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a very bad time for them. They had been optimistic throughout the entire ordeal, from his abduction Saturday to the initial posting of the deadline on Tuesday.

They always remained optimistic because they knew that the effort that the Saudi government as well as the U.S. government was mounting to try to find Paul Johnson.

The family right now is staying together at a place, a secluded place in New Jersey. They did get word moments from the State Department moments after those pictures and a statement appeared on the Web.

The family right now deciding whether they want to make a statement. They're planning on waiting between five to six hours, just to make sure that in fact those pictures are of Paul Johnson. They are waiting for official confirmation. The State Department not issuing that just yet.

Now, the family did issue an emotional plea on CNN. They were really speaking directly toward -- to the kidnappers, trying to paint Johnson as a gentle man, a kind man, a man who was very respectful of the culture, a man who was a grandfather. His son saying, "Let him go, and he will never return to Saudi Arabia ever again."

Now the State Department just issued a statement. They believe that a further attack will be likely. They have urged U.S. citizens to get out of Saudi Arabia. A source telling CNN, quote, "We want Americans to leave," unquote.

Johnson lived away from the expatriate compound in Riyadh, one source telling us he was a sitting duck -- Miles, Kyra.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Deb Feyerick, thanks very much.

Deb, let's -- let's continue on this. You've had contact with the family, unlike any other reporter. You know, to say they're having a hard time, they've also had a tremendous amount of courage through all this, haven't they?

FEYERICK: There's no question about it. When we sat down with them the day after that the deadline was set, what they really wanted to do, they wanted to try to personally reach out to those people.

They are very kind. They are a very gentle family, and they were hoping that by showing their faces, by showing the little boy, Paul Johnson IV, who is just 3 years old, Johnson's grandson whom he never met, they really believed that perhaps they could directly appeal to those kidnappers.

And they were talking to me as if they were almost talking to them, saying he would never hurt anyone. He loved the Saudi culture. He never felt afraid of Saudi Arabia.

And, you know, I spoke to them about whether he had begun looking over his shoulder in recent days, in recent weeks because of everything that had begun happening in that area.

And the sister told me, no. He just wasn't afraid. He was 6'2." He had a wife there. He had a home there. And when he was taken, he was taken alone. So that, in and of itself, indicating that he was not a man to be afraid, even though some bad things were happening in that region.

O'BRIEN: Deb, as I understand it, we're getting some new pictures in of the family, or at least friends of the family, outside the location. I'm not sure if you can see CNN air, so I doubt you can walk me through who these people are necessarily, but...

FEYERICK: Well, we can tell you this, Miles. There was so much support for this family throughout this entire ordeal. The town of Eagleswood, New Jersey, where Johnson grew up, they had a candlelight vigil last night.

And immediately upon word that Johnson had been beheaded, many people began arriving at the private location where the family is to offer their condolences, to offer their support and offer whatever help they could to this poor family who has suffered.

And Johnson's mother is very ill; she has cancer. And the daughter, Johnson's sister was really trying to protect the mother, because she didn't want to -- to upset her. The mother's health described as very frail, and so she didn't want to upset her.

All she said when the first video came out was, you know, he is alive. The belief now -- now that the whole family knows, the mother may know, as well, that her son has been killed -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. CNN's Deb Feyerick, thanks very much.

Let's turn it over again to CNN's Ken Robinson, who covers national security and intelligence issues for us.

Ken, let's about this whole notion that, unwittingly or not, the media are playing into al Qaeda's hands in the sense that, by telling this story, by -- to the extent that the pictures are out there, that campaign of information of war on the part of al Qaeda is successful.

KEN ROBINSON, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: It is precisely what is occurring right now on every network in the United States domestically, to have a campaign to conduct a war.

Remember, we're not going against a nation state; we're going against a distributed network of terrorist cells who are like-minded with an ideology. We don't have a capital to bomb; we don't have an army to destroy.

They, on the other hand, know who their enemy is, and they know how to communicate to that enemy, us. And they do that, the designation of a timeline that could not be met and no one would meet the terms for the beheading of this man is an information warfare attack.

And what they're doing, their measure of effectiveness is how we report it and how crazy we get. How we read word for word their demands and spreading that fear to the families. Spreading that fear to families who will urge their husbands to come home. Spreading that fear to corporations who will make a decision on whether to divest from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Because once we divest from there the infrastructure there is very fragile. They could continue to pump out barrels per day but the technology to keep opening up new oil wells and new fields, that is all vested in a bunch of technocrats, about 100,000 expatriates from Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

O'BRIEN: All right. But then, if you're talking about a war of ideas, won't, eventually, the ideas that are true and good prevail? Or am I being Pollyanna here?

ROBINSON: Well, unfortunately, there are so many different wars going on right now. There's the war of Islam amongst itself. Christianity and Judaism have had a reformation. Islam has never had a reformation.

And so that's why you see these schisms between the Sunni and Shiite. And as they're playing out with these frictions amongst themselves -- if they didn't have us to hate, they'd be killing each other. And they'll get to that as soon as they can convince us to leave.

O'BRIEN: In having said that, Kelli Arena just said a few moments ago, reporting not far from where you are, that the U.S. is recommending that its citizens leave. And given what has happened, that is a prudent thing, but, nevertheless, that's precisely what al Qaeda wants.

ROBINSON: Well, they also want the -- for us to be able to take our security forces and come into the kingdom. They want that, because that will then play to their hand of more infidels and showing how corrupt the Saudi kingdom is that it's only a puppet of the West. That's their message.

And then, if they can get our security forces to try to protect corporate workers and then have firefights in cities in Saudi Arabia, then that will inflame the Muslim world, in a way, to that group that would already be inflamed to that message.

Remember, this is the -- this is the time period that you can't convince your enemies and you don't have to convince your friends.

O'BRIEN: So -- So, let's get this straight then. They want us out, but, really, they would prefer the U.S. to be in there to foment more strife, which would ultimately bring down the kingdom?

ROBINSON: In the short term. Remember -- remember what their objective is. They have a tactical, operational and strategic objective. Their strategic end state is the collapse of the house of Saud and the emergence of a Wahhabist, Salafist (ph) leadership that will replace what they feel is a corrupt kingdom.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Ken Robinson. Thanks very much.

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