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WW2 Italian Armored Cars

Autoblinda AB41 in Polizia dell’Africa Italiana Service

Kingdom of Italy (1941-1943)
Medium Armored Car – At Least 40 in Polizia dell’Africa Italiana Service

The AB41 medium armored car was an Italian reconnaissance vehicle developed from the AB40, an armored car developed by FIAT-SPA and Ansaldo in the request of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (English: Police of Italian Africa) from 1937 to 1939.

The AB41s of the PAI were used mainly in North Africa by the Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ and in Italy by the Colonna ‘Cheren’.

The AB41 plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 508’ the seventh armored car of the AB41 model. It was probably taken in the early days of September 1941 in the Libyan desert. Source: pinterest.com

Context

In 1936 the Corpo di Polizia Coloniale (English: Colonial Police Corps) was created after a reorganization of the Police Corps operating in Libyan territory, to garrison the Italian governorship in Ethiopia and the colonies of Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (English: Italian East Africa). The new corps was under the command of the Italian Ministry of Colonies, then renamed the Ministry of Italian Africa. That was the first case in Italy that an armed force was under a civil ministry.

Created by Regio Decreto n. 1211 (English: Royal Decree) of 10th June 1937, its ranks and its tasks were well defined. It was to be a civilian corps militarily organized, and forming part of the armed forces of the state, with functions of political police, judicial police, and administrative police.

Men of the motorized corps of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana lined up with Moto Guzzi motorcycles, Moto Guzzi TriAlce (armed with Breda Modello 1937 medium machine gun in anti-aircraft support), several Lancia 3Ro heavy-duty trucks, and some SPA light lorries. Benito Mussolini, General Cavallero, and senior officers of the Regio Esercito are inspecting them. Libya, 9th September 1941. Source: Istituto Luce

The Corpo di Polizia Coloniale (it changed name on 15th May 1939) had an organic strength of 6,344 soldiers consisting of 87 officers, 368 NCOs, 1,475 Italian police officers, 4,064 Eritrean police officers, and 350 Somali police officers. At the beginning of the war, there were also a total of 735 Libyan police officers present. The African soldiers were called Àscari della Polizia (English: Police Àscari). Àscari (singular Àscaro) is an Italian word from the Arab عسكري‎ or ʿaskarī’ meaning “soldiers”.

The command of the unit was in Rome, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana school was in Tivoli about 30 km from Rome, the Ispettorato per l’Africa Orientale (English: East Africa Inspectorate) was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Ispettorato per la Libia was in Tripoli.

A total of 61 battalions were created in Caserma Pantanella in Via Degli Orti in Tivoli that were then assigned to 6 bases in Addis Ababa, Asmara, Benghazi, Gondar, Mogadishu and Tripoli and 5 special units, such as the Squadrone Azzurro (English: Blue Squadron) with 11 Italian police officers and 11 Somali police officers which were tasked with escorting the Governor of Somalia.

The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana school was inaugurated in Tivoli on 1st December 1937 and soon acquired great prestige in international military circles.

Future officers were required to know at least two foreign languages, with the options including Amharic (the most common Ethiopian language), Arabic, English, French, German, Somali and Tigrinya (spoken primarily in Eritrea and Ethiopia).

The first battalion to come out of the school was sent to Somalia and was renamed 1° Battaglione ‘Antonio Cecchi’ (English: 1st Battalion) in honor of Antonio Cecchi, a famous explorer killed on 26th November 1896 in Somalia by local tribesmen.
After the first battalion, six others were formed, all named after famous Italian pioneers in Africa: Luigi Amedeo di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi, Giuseppe Giulietti, Eugenio Ruspoli, Gaetano Casati, Vittorio Bòttego, and Romolo Gessi respectively.

Units of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana equipped with AB41s
1° Battaglione ‘Luigi Amedeo di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi’
2° Battaglione ‘Giuseppe Giulietti’
3° Battaglione ‘Eugenio Ruspoli’
4° Battaglione ‘Gaetano Casati’
5° Battaglione ‘Vittorio Bòttego’
6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’

The government of the German Reich, after receiving flattering reports from the German consular authorities in Italian East Africa about the high level of training of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, sent the Chief of the Deutsche Polizei, General Ritter Von Epp, on a courtesy visit to Tivoli. He was so impressed by the visit that he urged Berlin to ask the Ministry of Italian Africa to allow a refresher course for 180 German police officers, which took place in the first half of 1939.

German officers pass Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s troops lined up in Italy after a successful training. The AB40 plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 501’ is clearly visible with a striped ‘Imperiale’ Camouflage scheme and prototypes features. Source: italianiinguerra.wordpress.com

The PAI was greatly appreciated by the foreign press in Argentina, the United States, and many European countries. Very praiseworthy were the articles published by the British newspapers Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

After the defeat of Italian troops in Africa Orientale Italiana, even after the British victory, in Eritrea, the police officers of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana forces were reformed with the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali (English: Royal Carabinieri Corps) in the ‘Eritrea Police Force’ under British control.

The Police Headquarters in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, was entrusted to the Italian African Police, transformed into the Gruppo Autonomo Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza dell’Eritrea (English: Eritrean Autonomous Group of Public Security Guards). Over one hundred officers, NCOs, and guards remained in place, including numerous Àscari della Polizia, who fought against the widespread banditry in the now former colony. It was only on 15th September 1952 that the Corps was dissolved.

Propaganda posters for the enlistment of the Corpo di Polizia dell’Africa Italiana with some AB41s. Source: facebook.com

Design

In mid-1937 the Corpo di Polizia Coloniale issued a request for a new model of armored car. In the same period, the Regio Esercito also issued a similar request. In response, FIAT and Ansaldo, the two companies that started the project, decided to jointly do only a vehicle to meet all the demands.

The first prototypes of what would become the AutoBlindoMitragliatrice Modello 1940 (ABM40) and then AutoBlindo Modello 1940 (AB40) were ready in May 1939. One was for the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana and the second for the Regio Esercito.

In September 1939 it was tested in Africa by the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana police officers for 13,000 km in AOI. The PAI prototype, previously plateded ‘Polizia Coloniale – 501’, was then sented to Tivoli and was later replated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana – 501’.
The evaluation was positive and Ansaldo only made small modifications on the production vehicles.

The AB40 prototype in Africa in 1939. In front of it, its crew. Well visible the ‘Polizia Coloniale -501’ registration number. Source: forumfree.it

Already in late 1939 it was clear that the three-machine guns of the AB40 were not an adequate armament for an armored car, so it was decided to produce a turret with improved firepower for use on the same chassis. The Torretta Modello 1941 (English: Turret Model 1941), the same used on the L6/40 light tank, was chosen. This vehicle with a new turret was the Autoblinda AB41.

The AB41 Medium Armored Car was the most produced armored car of the Italian industry during the Second World War, with a total of 667 produced from 1941 to 1945. It was armed with a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 20 mm L/65 automatic cannon that could deal even with light tanks. The engine was more powerful than the ones mounted on the AB40, the new FIAT-SPA ABM 2, 6-cylinder petrol engine developing 88 hp.

The AB41 prototype at the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente, near Genoa. It was plated ‘Regio Esercito 126B’. Source: italie1935-45.com

Operational use

Polizia dell’Africa Italiana – North Africa

The first Italian unit to use AB armored cars in the North African Campaign was the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, which used the first 9 AB41s which arrived in Libya in September 1941 in the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’, together with an AB40. The ten armored cars had registration plates between ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 501’ (the AB40 prototype modified and put again in service) to ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 510’ and were assigned to the 1ª Compagnia (English: 1st Company).

The AB41 of the 1ª Compagnia of the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana lined up in Nettunia before September 1941 when they were deployed to Libya. Source: pinterest.com

These ten armored cars were assigned, together with three AB41s and a Autoblindo TL37 (arrived on the same days) of an experimental armored car platoon of the Regio Esercito, to the Raggruppamento Esplorante del Corpo d’Armata di Manovra or RECAM (English: Scouting Group of the Mobile Army Corp). None of the 13 armored cars were equipped with radios.

The ninth AB41 of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, the number ’10’ plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 0510’. Photo taken during the armored car’s maintenance. It had a particular right-hand-fixed radio antenna and some combat damage. It had a white line painted on the front armor, between the towing hooks and the written ‘O va o la Spacca’ (English: We either win or we fall) painted over the driver’s hatch, characteristic of the first PAI’s armored cars. Source: Istituto Luce

During the first actions in Egypt against the British, the armored cars of the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ were protagonists of a friendly fire incident on 13th September, when German aircraft mistook the armored cars for British vehicles. PAI’s Major Salvatore Diamante got out of his armored car and, under enemy fire and together with PAI medic Lieutenant Aldo Alberini, went to recover the wounded from the burning armored cars, managing to save some men.

The same armored car during the same maintenance. Apart from the engine parts on the armored car’ side, the fixed radio antenna and the number 10 with a white underline on the vehicle’ side are visible. Source: Istituto Luce

A part of the PAI Battalion was then sent to Tripolitania and was converted into a mixed company, while a part, commanded by Major Diamante, remained on Egyptian soil to fight the British troops. This PAI unit was not very lucky and, shortly after, Major Diamante was surrounded by British troops. With only two AB41 armored cars, those of Diamante and that of Brigadiere Timoteo Marini, and a few remaining motorcyclists, the Major fought until his ammunition ran out and he was captured.

The AB41 number ‘8’ plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 508’ (on the superstructure’s side and on the 20 liters can the number ‘8’ is written) and is visible the same motto, ‘O la va o la Spacca’ as the first photo it has the first type of radio antenna mounted on the right side. Source: pinterest.com

To replace the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’, RECAM later received two Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8 battalions.

For the rest of the campaign, the PAI employed the 4ª Compagnia (English: 4th Company) with 7 AB41s, probably with two platoons of 3 armored cars and a command AB41. This unit was created in October 1941, along with the 3ª Compagnia della Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, with a total of 10 armored cars. Another company was created in July 1942 with 14 AB41s, but was never shipped to Africa and remained on the Italian mainland, taking part in the defense of Rome in September 1943.

Three Àscari della Polizia, an Italian Polizia dell’Africa Italiana police officers, and a PAI AB’s crewmember posing with their personal Moschetto Automatico Beretta Modello 1938As and Beretta Modello 1934 pistol in front of the first Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s AB41 plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 502’. It had Pirelli Tipo ‘Libia’ for sandy soils and the radio antenna of the first type on the right side (in the photo is visible only the antenna support). Source: pinterest.com

Worthy of mention is also the activity of Brigadiere Vittorio Ciani of the Polizia Dell’Africa Italiana, Guardia Giulio Gambino, and Guardia Rosario Orlando, respectively radio operator, driver, and rear driver of the command armored car of one company (probably the 4ª Compagnia) of the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’. On 23rd November 1941, during a battle against British troops, their armored car captured 18 prisoners (including an officer) and three light lorries (or armed trucks) under intense enemy fire.

The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s armored car number ‘2’ in the North African desert together with PAI’s motorcyclists. Source: disciplinaedonore.it

Having been instructed by the armored car commander to disarm the prisoners, Brigadiere Ciani got out of the armored car and disarmed the enemy soldiers under intense fire, then remained out until two other armored cars of the company arrived. The armored cars towed the captured vehicles and transported the prisoners back to base. Meanwhile, Guardia Orlando supplied the vehicle commander with ammunition clips and, at the same time, handled the prisoners alongside Brigadiere Ciani.

The commander of the AB41 number ‘2’ scanned the battlefield with his binoculars. In this photo, the Italian flag is clearly visible on the side, it covers in part the black underline under the number ‘2’, this means that the photo was taken after 13th September 1941. The frontal homemade 20 liter can supports were visible as in the previous photo. Source: pinterest.com

Three days later, they participated, with the same armored car, in an intense fight against British troops and armored vehicles. Since their armored car was advancing with the front driver (Guardia Giulio Gambino), Brigadiere Ciani was unable to assist in the fight, so he dismounted the rear machine gun of the armored car, harnessed it and opened the upper part of the armored door and used it effectively against the British troops, while Guardia Orlando supplied him and the vehicle commander with ammunition clips.

The AB41 was subsequently hit by a round to the fuel tank and fuel sprayed into the crew compartment, soaking the soldiers inside. Orlando’s attempts to block the fuel spill were unsuccessful.

In spite of this serious problem, the crew held their position and continued to fire with all weapons. A second bullet penetrated the engine compartment and hit the engine, causing a fire in the armored car. Miraculously, Brigadier Ciani, Guardia Gambino, the commander, and Orlando escaped the flames. Orlando was the last one out, as he tried to put out the flames and save part of the equipment until the last moment. The three soldiers were awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valor.

The same AB41 number ‘10’ of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, probably during a patrol in Via Balbia on the Libyan 1,800 km long coastal road that went from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian border. Source: pinterest.com

Some AB41s, some belonging to PAI Lieutenant Giovanni Onofri, PAI Vice-Brigadier Giuseppe Patelli, and Brigadiere Francesco Spagnoletti, attacked some tanks during the same fight. They suffered some losses, but knocked out some British tanks. Lieutenant Onofri’s AB41 was directly hit in the turret, wounding his head and jamming the 20 mm cannon. The armored car continued the battle and did not retreat until the rear machine gun also jammed.

The third Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s AB41 numbered ‘4’ and plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 504’, probably during the same maintenance of the AB41’s number ‘10’. Source: Istituto Luce

On 3rd December 1941, a British force composed of truck-mounted artillery attacked a column of the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ during a break. The soldiers of the PAI, after a brief moment of chaos, resumed control of the situation, managing to counterattack, and forced the British troops to retreat. The Italian losses amounted to a few vehicles that were all recovered and most likely returned to service.

The Polizia Dell’Africa Italiana was employed in the North African campaign until 14th December 1942 in Tunisia. In total, 105 Italian personnel died during the fights while the foreign police officers who died were unknown. The total of AB41s lost in Africa by the PAI is unknown, though the number was probably fewer than 50.

AB41 of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana‘s 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ in Barce, Tunisia on 13th November 1942. Note the Italian flag painted on the side and the front together with a Savoia Cross painted white and partially covered by the front 20-liter cans. It was the number ‘14’ of an unknown company and had Pirelli Tipo ‘Artiglio’ tires for continental soils. Source: pinterest.com

Polizia dell’Africa Italiana – Italy

German and Italian troops in Tunisia surrendered in May 1943.
In spite of this, the School of Tivoli continued to train new recruits. In the spring, a new light armored unit, the Colonna ‘Cheren’ commanded by Colonel Nicola Toscano was initially destined to Tunisia with new vehicles, such as Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42.

The unit included the 1° Battaglione ‘Luigi Amedeo di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi’, 3° Battaglione ‘Eugenio Ruspoli’, and 5° Battaglione ‘Vittorio Bòttego’.

The unit, composed of about 1,300 soldiers, of which 444 vehicle crews, was equipped with 12 L6/40 reconnaissance light tanks, 14 AB41 medium armored cars, 2 Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariane’, and 12 guns consisting of small cannons and machine guns.

Police armored car crew, police officers, and Polizia dell’Africa Italiana motorcyclists posing in front of an AB41 near Rome. It was plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 0886’. Source: pinterest.com

On 25th July 1943, with the fall of Mussolini after the Italian king’s coup d’état, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana was relied upon because it was considered absolutely devoted to the monarchical institution and not to Fascism.

General Maraffa, supreme commander of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana ordered his units to return to active duty in Rome. There was a fear that there would be a reaction by fascist militias after the fall of Mussolini, but this reaction did not come. On 28th July, the Italian-African police force was regularly active in the capital.

After the fall of Mussolini, a new monarchical government was created. Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio led it and almost immediately tried to secretly reach a peace agreement with the Allied powers.

On 3rd September 1943, an armistice was signed in Cassibile, in Sicily, which was already under Allied control. This armistice was made public only five days after, on 8th September.

On 8th September there were 1,581 troops of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana in Rome, and at the time of Badoglio’s announcement, no communication had been sent to the command of the Italian African Police, which remained without orders, like most of the Italian armed forces.

Police officers of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana posing on an AB41 (the same as before, plated ‘Polizia dell’Africa Italiana 0886’) in Rome, before the Armistice. Source: disciplinaedonore.it

At 8:00 pm, the Rome Army Corps command asked the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana to urgently send a unit to Porta San Paolo. From there, they were again sent towards the fuel depot of Mezzocammino, on the Via Ostiense. However, the unit was stopped by a group of German paratroopers who tried under various pretexts to convince Lieutenant Barbieri’s unit to turn back when at some point gunfire was opened.

The company managed to break through the encirclement and return to the city with several casualties on the ground and abandoning some armed trucks, and maybe also some of its armored vehicles.

Their most important task of the night was to escort the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia, the royal family, and the Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, who had to flee down the Via Tiburtina where they found US soldiers who welcomed them.

For some time, the unit did not enter the field. The German ambush had created much turmoil and some units were unable to make contact with the others.

Meanwhile, the 3. Panzergrenadier Division (English: 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division) and some units of the 26. Panzer Division (English: 26th Armored Division) overcame the fuel depot, destroyed the resistance of the Caserma della Cecchignola and advanced further north towards the Tiber River. On the Magliana bridge, however, the unit was confronted by some battalions of the 21ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’ (English: 21th Infantry Division) that put up a strenuous resistance. Towards midnight, however, the reserve battalion of the division was called to intervene to drive back the Germans.

The reserve battalion was the II Battaglione commanded by Major Costa. His unit left from the Tre Fontane area a few hundred meters from the frontline, went around the battlefield crossing the Tiber in another point, and went behind the V Caposaldo (English: 5th Stronghold) to provide support and to retake the lost positions.

When it reached the Magliana Station, Lieutenant Costa’s battalion encountered a unit of the Italian Africa Police that positioned themselves on the highway and joined the battle, probably with some armored cars, tanks, and camionette.

On the early morning of 9th September 1943, other police officers of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana joined the fight and with some Bersaglieri (Italian assault infantry), the students of the academy of the Arma dei Carabinieri Reali (English: Arm of Royal Carabiners), and the Italian Granatieris with the support of some armored cars, were able to attack and force the German forces in the Magliana area to retreat.

A few hours later, they themselves were forced to retreat some hundred meters north to create another line to block the German troops. During this other attack, the 1° Battaglione of the PAI was totally destroyed, some Italian armored cars were destroyed, and the other units also suffered heavy losses.

The PAI officers and the other soldiers were forced to retreat further north towards the Ostiense Fort, organizing defenses with about 500 soldiers of the 21ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’. The defenders managed to hold out firing with their rifles and some machine guns for over an hour until the Germans were able to bring a mortar and began to bomb the Italian defenses.

When the last armored car was destroyed by mortar grenades, the Germans attacked with flamethrowers, forcing the last soldiers to flee. Some nuns from a nearby orphanage provided the surviving police officers and soldiers with civilian clothes for the escape while a priest organized the surrender of the fort at 11.00 am. In 36 hours, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana had lost 56 personnel.

With the constitution of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian Social Republic), the role of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana became increasingly difficult. The Commander, General Maraffa, a fervent monarchist, refused to swear allegiance to the new Fascist state, and was therefore arrested and deported to Germany to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died two months later, in 1944.

In 1944, in the SS prison at Via Tasso in Rome, Colonel Nicola Toscano, commander of the Colonna ‘Cheren’, and his colleague Colonel Elviro Scalerà, who were part of the Clandestine Military Front of the Resistance, were also arrested. Both were set to be shot on the morning of 4th June 1944, but they were saved during a mass escape from the prison where they were being held.

The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana continued to provide law and order services in Rome even under the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. The Repubblica Sociale Italiana‘s attempt to reform the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana finally failed when it was decided to incorporate it into the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (English: Republican National Guard), the Military Police of the RSI. The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana was officially dissolved by the Fascist authorities in March 1944. At least 8 AB41 armored cars of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana survived to the clashes after the Armistice were reused by Repubblica Sociale Italiana forces but their exact destiny is unknown. Maybe they were recovered from the 1ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’ (English: 1st Legionary Armored Division) in the days after the Armistice (some of their units were deployed near the PAI barracks between 12th and 13th September 1943.

In the south, however, under Allied control, the remaining units of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, served regularly as a service of order, until the final dissolution on 9th March 1945.

Conclusion

The AB41 was an adequate armored car even if it had some flaws. In its reports, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana was very flattering over the AB41. In North Africa and Italy they were used in a similar way as the Regio Esercito‘s ABs, with similar results. During the war, it was the most numerous armored car in service with the Italian units in all the fronts of war. The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana operated them only in North Africa and Rome. The PAI was satisfied with the armored car that in the first stages of the war was also capable of knocking out light tanks.

The Autoblinda AB41 number ’10’ of the 1ª Compagnia of the 6° Battaglione ‘Romolo Gessi’ of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana with Pirelli Tipo ‘Libia’ tires. Illustrations by the illustrious Godzilla funded by our Patreon Campaign.

AB41 specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 5.20 x 1.92 x 2.48 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready 7.52 tons
Crew 4 (front driver, rear driver, machine gunner/loader, and vehicle commander/gunner)
Propulsion FIAT-SPA 6-cylinder petrol, 88 hp with 195 liters tank
Speed Road Speed: 80 km/h
Off-Road Speed: 50 km/h
Range 400 km
Armament Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 1935 (456 rounds) and Two Breda Modello 1938 8 x 59 mm medium machine guns (1992 rounds)
Armor 8.5 mm Hull
Turret Front: 40 mm
Sides: 30 mm
Rear: 15 mm
In service with the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana More than 40

Sources

PAI – Polizia dell’Africa Italiana – Raffaele Girlando
Italian Armored & Reconnaissance Cars 1911-45 – Filippo Castellano and Pier Paolo Battistelli
Le Autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43 – Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo

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