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Israeli - Syrian Shadow-Boxing PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper   
May 11, 2009 at 09:15 PM
Since the mid-1990s the Israeli and the Syrian air forces were involved in "routine" reconnaissance operations along the mutual borders, executed according some un-written rules. In 2001, however, the situation changed completely.
The “Lost” Drone
On the early morning on one of the last days in April 2002, an UAV of unknown type – but belonging to the Israeli Defense Force/Air Force (IDF/AF) – crossed the Syrian border after a short flight through the Jordanian airspace. Syrian radars already tracked the aircraft for quite some time, and once it entered the Syrian airspace, the local air defense command of the Syrian Arab Republic Air Force/Air Defense Force (SyAAF/ADF) brought a decision to scramble an interceptor and destroy the intruder. Only minutes later, one MiG-23S of the SyAAF/ADF was vectored towards the UAV: the pilot used the good acceleration of his mount to close rapidly, then managed to properly acquire the target and destroy it using a single air-to-air missile while the UAV was underway near the southern Syrian city of as-Suwayda, and only some 100km north of Amman, Jordan.

Interestingly, while this was going on, the Syrian air defenses were also tracking several Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopters, which were apparently monitoring the Israeli UAV and then did some moves, which indicated that they were interested in its recovery - even from a site beyond the Syrian border! However, due to a swift deployment of one Mi-8 helicopter, the Syrian recovery team was so fast in place the Jordanians never got a chance: the destroyed Israeli UAV was captured and taken away for inspection.

It is reported, that since this loss, the IDF/AF has stopped all of its reconnaissance missions around, over, and beyond the Syrian borders, and so the years-long shadow-boxing between the Israeli Air Force and the SyAAF came to an abrupt end.

Approximate route of the Israeli UAV shot down over southern Syria in April 2002. Note the close proximity of the King Hussein (former Mafraq) Royal Jordanian Air Force Air Base, from where a single RJAF helicopter was sent towards the Syrian border apparently in a try to capture the downed UAV. The Syrians were faster... (courtesy Y. A. A.)

Un-Written Rules
Although completely unknown in the public, namely, during the last few years the activity of both the Israeli and the Syrian reconnaissance aircraft along the mutual borders (and around them) was especially intensive. It is understandable that the IDF/AF and the SyAAF are monitoring each other, and the situation along the mutual borders with great care. For many years this was also done, but with each side respecting a sort of an unwritten
consensus being in power, and regulating what which side "could" or "could not" do. During an interview some two years back, Major A. (SyAAF/ADF), an experienced MiG-25PD and MiG-25R pilot, for example, explained that, “Every year, between eight and nine reconnaissance missions are flown by unit along the Israeli borders, and sometimes even behind them”, but, so Maj. A., "such operations are ignored by the Israelis". During another, unrelated, interview, the then Major (meanwhile Col.) H. confirmed this indirectly, stating, "It is a routine for the radars of the Syrian ADF to monitor movements of Israeli reconnaissance planes over northern Israel, Lebanon and Golan“, and, "the same is the case with Israeli radars when Syrian reconnaissance planes operate along or behind Israeli borders".

"Already since years“. Col. H. concluded, "Nobody fires at each other, even if there were several cases that aircraft from one of the sides entered the airspace of the other side and were then intercepted.“

Indeed, since the late 1980s it happened several times that Israeli and Syrian fighters came pretty close to each other, but, both sides would usually turn back without engaging or firing at each other. Apparently, there were three such "lines": one directly along the border, and one on the each side of it. A reserve officer of the SyAAF/ADF, and a SA-6 operator, described the situation as follows: "Usually, we only track the enemy reconnaissance planes on our radars, without firing at them, and that is what they usually do with us. While we were in the camp (forward deployed at Golan), in 1996, we used to observe our and their planes coming very close to each other and then - at a certain imaginary line - both sides would turn back. Sometimes, planes of both sides would cross the line, but there was no reaction from either side. That was directly over the occupied Golan, but behind the Israeli lines."

Syrian Foxbats were flying regular recce sorties around - and even over - Israel during the 1990s. SyAAF still operates two MiG-25RBs with 7th OCU, based at Shayrat AB, and six examples - including this MiG-25RBS - with the 9th Sqn, based at Dmeyr AB. For operations in connection with Israel, they were usually "forward deployed" to al- Ladhiqiyah. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

During the early summer 2001, however, the Israelis suddenly changed their behavior, and started breaking these rules, by dispatching their reconnaissance aircraft and UAVs deeper over Syria. It did not took long and two particularly heavy accidents developed in July of that year. During the first, sometimes in mid-July, two Israeli fighters intruded the Syrian airspace and took a course towards Halab (Aleppo). The SyAAF/ADF scrambled a pair each of MiG-25s and MiG-29s and these intercepted the Israeli fighters over the town of Idlib, only some 35 kilometers from the Turkish border. The Israelis, however, turned away and run towards the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where no less but 12 Israeli fighters were being detected by the SyAAF/ADF radar net, waiting for them due east and north-east of Cyprus: the IDF/AF was obviously ready to fight in order to get the two recce-birds out of Syria. Therefore, a decision was taken in accordance with the orders from the top Syrian political leadership, the SyAAF/ADF not to respond in the same manner nor to provoke an air battle, and the MiGs were ordered back to their bases.

On 27 July 2001, two Israeli fighters entered the Syrian air space again, this time at high level, ingressing from Turkish air space, again passing the town of Idlib before taking a course towards al-Ladhiqiyah (Latakia). When over Jisi ash-Shughur, only some 30 kilometers southwest from Idlb, they were acquired by one of the SA-6 sites newly deployed in the area, which forced them to change their course. Meanwhile, also several SyAAF/ADF interceptors were scrambled, and finally both Israelis were forced to turn away, and leave the Syrian air space flying along the Turkish border and then in the international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea.

The Knife Fight
By September 2001, the situation detoriated further, especially so after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, which made both the SyAAF and the IDF/AF extremely nervous. Exactly this provoked the so far heaviest incident in the recent history of Syrian-Israeli aerial clashes.

On 14 September 2001, an IDF/AF Boeing 707, equipped for SIGINT-reconnaissance, was on a mission along the Lebanese and Syrian coast, collecting Syrian defense informations, monitoring foremost telecommunications and radar tags in the Tarabulus (Tripolis) and Hamidiyali areas. The plane was underway at 520 knots and 30.000ft, and escorted by two F-15Cs, at least one of which carried the newest Python Mk.IV air-to-air missiles.

The IDF/AF flew similar missions in the area at least twice a week since quite some times, and – as usually – the SyAAF scrambled two interceptors to shadow the “ferret”: the Syrians would always monitor the operations of Israeli reconnaissance aircraft, sending either MiG-23s from Abu ad-Duhor AB, or – less often – MiG-29s from Tsaykal, forward deployed at al-Ladhiqiyah, would get the honor to fly such missions over the Mediterranean Sea. So far, the Syrians have always taken care to stay at least some 20 kilometers away from Israeli planes, and never showed any interest in attacking the Israelis.

But, on this day, at 0914hrs, the two MiG-29s sent to shadow the Boeing 707 suddenly turned towards the Israeli aircraft and increased their speed. For the pilots of the two Israeli F-15s in escort this was not only surprising, but also an obviously aggressive maneuver. Due to the short range, there was no time to ask questions: the MiGs turned towards the Israeli planes in aggressive manner, and could open fire any moment.

The leader of the F-15-pair ordered the Boeing to instantly distance from the area and engage ECM systems, and then called his ground control for help and reinforcements (as a result of this call, six more F-15s and six F-16s were scrambled, along a single Boeing 707 tanker). Moment later, he warned the Syrian MiG-29 pilots on the international distress frequency to change their course. As the MiGs failed to response, the Eagles moved into attack.

One of the F-15s attacked the lead Syrian MiG-29 from above, closing directly out of the rising sun, and launching a single Python Mk.IV from an off-boresight angle of 40 degrees. The missile guided properly and hit the MiG above the left wing, immediately setting it afire.

The short but sharp clash between nervous Israeli and Syrian pilots on 14 September 2001 saw also the first combat use of the Python Mk.IV IR-homing, short-range, air-to-air missile. The weapon acted as advertised, scoring a hit after being launched against a target from forward aspect and a very high off-boresight angle. Two can be seen here, mounted on the left underwing pylon of an Israeli F-15C. (Rafael)

The other MiG-29 banked hard right, apparently heading back to Syria, but it was too late, as the second F-15 was already too close: the pilot launched a single AIM-9M Sidewinder from a range of only 500 meters. The missile slammed into the target, crashing it into the sea.

Both Syrian pilots, Maj. Arshad Midhat Mubarak, and Capt. Ahmad al-Khatab, ejected safely and were recovered by Syrian ships. The names of the involved Israeli F-15-pilots remain unknown.

More "Kill Markings"? The IDF/AF fleet of F-15s is meanwhile well known for numerous Eagles displaying kill-markings for Syrian fighters shot down in air combats since 1979. Two - so far unknown - Israeli F-15s show one marking each more now. (IDF)

The map showing the route of the IDF/AF Boeing 707 along the Lebanese and the Syrian coast, the place where the Syrian MiG-29s intercepted the Israeli formation, and also where the short air combat developed. (courtesy J. S. H.)

The SyAAF on Alert
After the air battle on 14 September, both the Israelis and the Syrians did their best to downplay the affair. Not only was the clash overshadowed by the 11 September attacks in the USA, but the IDF/AF was rather busy dealing with the Palestinians, while the Syrians were of course dissatisfied with the results of the air battle. The Israelis would not comment at all, while the Syrian officials did their best to deny the affair, the Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister was the only official ready to offer any commentary in response to requiries of our correspondent:
"Yes, the Syrian Air Force had a training accident on that day, and it is true the accident had been very serious, but no aircraft had been lost - to my knowledge."

The Israeli authorities denied anything similar happened. Private sources denied "any unusual activity within the Northern Command" on the given date. A more serious research is currently impossible due to the military censorship.

Nevertheless, all the reports from Syria indicate, that all the mentioned incidents – plus the well known attacks of the IDF/AF against SyAAF/ADF positions inside Lebanon - put the SyAAF/ADF (and the whole Syrian military) under a considerable pressure, and each time after another inciden the whole service - together with all special units of the Syrian Army - were kept on the highest possible state of alert (the so-called "State 0" in Syrian military jargon) for the next three days. By late last year, the High Command of the Syrian Air Force decided, that no similar Israeli incursions would be tolerated any more. Already since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the USA, the behavior of both, the SyAAF and the IDF/AF pilots, was described as “little more jumpy than normal” in respect of dealing with unknown aircraft flying near their respective aerospaces.

This was probably the reason for MiG-29s trying to close upon the Israeli Boeing 707 on 14 September. That engagement can definitely be described as a “very close range” one: under such circumstances, and dealing with two MiG-29s which could attack the Boeing 707 from a range of more than 20 kilometers, the Israeli F-15-pilots had to act very fast, regardless right or wrong.

Nevertheless, as a consequence – and despite being successful in downing both Syrian interceptors – after seeing one of their $300 million expensive Boeing coming under such a serious threat, the IDF/AF stopped further reconnaissance flights in the area for quite some time. Especially no penetrations of the Syrian air space were undertaken – that is, until the spring 2002. In April 2002, the activities of Israeli reconnaissance assets were increased one more time, and remained so for few weeks - until the Israeli UAV was shot down well within the Syrian airspace, albeit far in the south.

Unclear Backgrounds
The logical question arising as a consequence from reports of this kind is why would the Israelis since the summer of 2001 fly beyond the "lines", break all the rules - even the unwritten ones which were respected by both sides for several years - and operate deep over Syria, putting their planes and pilots at risk, and even being ready to provoke a full air battle for which they considered that 12 interceptors would be needed in order to extract their reconnaissance aircraft out of the Syrian airspace?

Although it is known, that at the given time the Syrian military was involved in several wargames during which certain new weapons systems were introduced, these were conducted far from the places where most of the incidents with Israeli reconnaissance aircraft happened.

Namely, in July 2001 the then new Syrian President, Dr. Basheer Assad, was still struggling to establish his power basis, and had enough problems to keep the military under control, the leadership of which was several times fiercely requesting "more equivalent" reactions from the Syrian side than the "routine" missions flown by Maj. A. and his colleges based at the T.4 Air Base. It would certainly not be in the Israeli interest to provoke a heavier crisis with Syria than already the two well-known air attacks against Syrian positions in Lebanon have done, and at the time the Israeli military was involved in the fighting with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gazah - just like it is now. Therefore, there was no obvious reason for Israeli behaviour in the case of the short air combat - except narvous pilots, while the backgrouns for previous intensive reconnaissance reconnaissance flights over Syria are also unclear, and certainly beyond what was considered as "permitted" by both sides.

Between other arms shipments that arrived in Syria in period 2000-2001 were also 16 "new" MiG-29s (most probably airframes from an un-delivered order from Iraq, built in 1990-1991), upgraded to an - so far - unknown standard. The SyAAF originally acquired 48 MiG-29A and UBs, in the late 1980s; the first unit to operate the type was 697th Sqn, based at Tsaykal AB, at the time commanded by Maj. al-Masry, pilot that shot down an Israeli F-4E Phantom II, on 9 October 1982 (not directly related to Maj. El al-Masry who scored the first two air-to-air victories for MiG-23s, in 1974). Two other units were subsequently formed with MiG-29s: the 698th and 699th Squadrons, both based at Tsaykal AB as well. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Convoys for Baghdad
There was only one possible reason for the intensive Israeli reconnaissance activities - most of which were recorded in the area near the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of al-Ladhiqiyah and Tarabulus: the clandestine shipments of arms for Iraq via Syria, which were known to have been arriving in Syrian ports several times during 2001. These would at least be a good reason for some of the reconnaissance missions flown by IDF/AF in the area in that year.

However, the last two such shipments were reported to have arrived in Syria in February 2002, and no other shipments - except those designated for Syria – were reported to have arrived ever since. If the Israelis were searching for shipments bound for Iraq, however, the best moment to photograph them would be at the time the large convoys of trucks were moving along the Damascus - Beirut highway in southeastern Syria. However, this would still be almost 100km north of where the April 2002 incident happened, during which a Syrian MiG-23S shot down the Israeli UAV.

Given that the main part of the Syrian military is stationed in the south of the country, however, the reconnaissance missions over the northwestern Syria seem to be less dangerous, even if the photographs taken there could be misleading, as most of the equipment arriving via Syrian ports – regardless if bound for Syria or Iraq - has to be brought to Damascus area: on the contrary, the southwestern parts of Syria are considered as the best defended and ones where the Syrians have it most easily to respond. Of course, there is always a possibility, that the Israelis were interested alone about what is going on in the areas deeper within Syria, behind the front on Golan, or simply in what the Syrians were importing for themselves, and not so much about what the Iraqis were getting.

On the other side, especially interesting for the Syrians - and of a considerable concern for them - was the apparent Jordanian involvement in this Israeli operation: the conclusion of the Syrian military leadership, based on the monitoring of Jordanian operations was, that the Jordanians were permitting and supporting Israeli reconnaissance activities, especially the operation of the UAV which was shot down near as-Suwayda.

The situation quietened now, but it must be expected that both sides have ever since re-started their reconnaissance operations: the mutual mistrust between Israel and Syria is such, that they can not permit the movements of the other side to remain unobserved for longer periods of time.

The Author of this article would like to thank all persons that kindly provided their help in research for this article on condition of anonimity and the publishing of the article to be postponed for several months.

In response to several e-mails from different readers of this article, here are some additional explanations about the situation in the airspace over southern northern Israel, southern Lebanon, and southern Syria.

The first diagram shows the map of the area with countries within their borders, the main air bases in Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are marked in Green, while the Lebanese mountains - which form a natural obstacle between southern Syria and the Mediterranean Sea - are marked in different shades of light brown. (all diagrams by Tom Cooper)

The next diagram details the main Syrian long-range radar coverage in the area: this is outlined in red. The area shaded in blue is the "shade" this net has over the airspace of southern Lebanon: this "shade" is caused by the Lebanese hills. Of course, the Syrians have - in addition to these two main LR-radar stations - also several others in the al-Ladhaqiyah and Tartus areas, and these cover their Med coast down to approx the southern Lebanese-Israeli border. However, these radars cannot see properly over Lebanon - again because of the Lebanese hills. Consequently, they have attempted to put several radar stations on the tops of the hills along the Lebanese borders. Although being high, and thus "seeing far", and covering some parts of this shade, these radars couldn't see down further than the Bekaa Valley, because of the Jebel Liban mountain chain, which is spreading the whole Lenght of Lebanon on the north-south axis. Thus, the Syrians have never had a proper radar coverage of the Lebanese skies. Even more so, because most of Israel is at sea-level, and between Israel and Syria there are the Golan Heights, the Syrians also do not have a good radar picture of Israel: they can't see anything bellow the level of 1000m over northern Israel. the IDF/AF aircraft can take-off and fly along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea towards north without the slightest fear of being detected by the Syrians: especially the "shade" of Mr. Hermon/Mt. Jabel Sheikh is blocking Syrian radars from detecting them.

This diagram presents the basic deployment of SyAAF/ADF SAM-system. The theoretical max range - especially of such weapons like SA-2s - is of course longer than the light-blue circles denote. However, the effective "no-escape" zones (even these are actually theoretical) are much narrower. As can be seen, there is a heavy concentration of SAM-sites along the Golan Heights, on the north-south axis and in the Damascus area. Further to the north several gaps open, which can't physically and numerically ever be covered by SAMs, except the SyAAF/ADF would have 200 SAM-brigades (it has some 60). The large light-blue circle denotes the range of the SA-5s: these are positioned (at least from what I've least heard) high in the mountains on the border to Lebanon, so to give the SyAAF/ADF the best coverage over Lebanon and over the Med (positioning them near Tartus would make little sence, as they would then be at the sea-level, and the Lebanese mountains would block their reach over Lebanon).

The final diagram shows all the maps above combined: it shows all the air bases in the area (the northernmost IDF/AF base is Ramat David AB), plus the Syrian radar coverage, plust the Syrian SAM-coverage, plus the shades within the Syrian radar&SAM coverage. Obviously, there is a huge gap in the coverage at low levels over Lebanon: most of the Syrian radar net can see nothing of what is going on there at all - regardless the level - and those Syrian radar sites that are positioned high on the mountains along the border to Lebanon see far, but not down. Looking westwards, the West, the Syrian radar-stations always have something that causes them the background clutter: it's either the mountains, or they look down to the sea.

As a further illustration of the situation explained above here another diagram. It shows the Syrian plateau to the right, the Mt. Hermon/Mt. Jebel Sheikh in the middle, Jabel Liban to the left, and then the Mediteranean Sea: the Syrian radar stations on the Syrian Plateau cannot see behind Mt. Hermon, while the radar stations positioned on adjacent mountains cannot see behind Jebel Liban...

This was the original situation in the air between these two countries during the 1990s. There were "un-written" rules about where could each side go: to the red line, and no further. As long as nobody crossed these lines, there were no firings.

Description of what happened in July 2001: two IDF/AF recce planes - could have been RF-4Es or F-4E(S), but also some of their F-15s or F-16s configured for recce tasks - penetrated the Syrian airspace after approach via Turkey: they were intercepted near Idlib while closing towards Aleppo, and escaped back over the Mediterranean - where no less but 12 other IDF/AF fighters were waiting to help them - if needed.

Already on 27 July 2001 another penetration via the Turkish airspace occured, but the IDF/AF aircraft turned around when encountering a new SA-6 site near Jisr ash-Shughur.

Then, in September of the same year that clash between the F-15s and MiG-29s occurred, in which two MiGs went down after approaching an IDF/AF Boeing EC-707 at a high speed. Note that in all of these cases the IDF/AF planes were approaching through the shadows in the Syrian airspace, or from Turkish airspace - from where the Syrians should not have expected any penetrations. Note also, that once inside the Syrian airspace - like on 27 July 2001 - the IDF/AF planes were operating outside the areas covered by SAMs, or aborting their missions if encountering any unknown SAM-sites.

When this was not the case, like in April 2002, when they have sent that UAV via Jordan into southern Syria, the UAV got intercepted and shot down as soon as it entered one of the two main zones in which the SyAAF interceptors are almost permanently on CAP-stations (these zones are marked orange; the approximate route of the UAV is marked black).

Notes & Reactions
(posted on 19 April, 2004)

Immediately after published for the first time, this article rose quite some “dust” in specific circles on the internet.

The most usual reaction is plain disbelief, readers asking: how could anything of this kind happen without the mass-media publishing anything about the clashes in question?

The clear answer to this question is: Reuters or CNN reporters are not usually to be found at places like 30.000ft above the Mediterranean Sea. Even less so: they are not very frequently seen anywhere near air bases of the Israeli or Syrian Air Forces.

Clearly, as one of our Israeli readers remarked, “somebody” – like British, Greek and Turkish radar stations in the area, or foreign warships operating there – must have noticed something. This, however, must not mean that the anybody “must” also have reported this to the press: most usually persons who witness such cases due to their profession, do not report about them in the public.

At the same time, this does not mean “somebody” from the mentioned places did not report this to anybody else: obviously, “somebody” did, otherwise we would have no knowledge about this incident.

The fact that no mainstream nor even specialized media reported anything about these incidents means also not that they never happened. In fact, relying even on such authoritative publications like Jane’s, AFM, WAPJ/IAPR and similar for information about incidents like these proved to be pointless already since long time: the general agreement even in best-informed circles is that they – for different reasons – have proved time and again not to be able to provide a truly in-depth insight into relevant developments in several similar cases in the last 15 or so years. Clearly, sources like above mentioned are indisputably authoritative in a number of other fields, but they are time and again missing other important informations: bear in mind that none of the mentioned publications managed so far to report even exactly how many MiG-29s were eventually purchased by Syria or are currently in service with the Syrian Air Force.

The article above was offered to some well-known aviation magazines, but – like in the case of several other similar articles – there was no response. In the single case where there was one, the editor in question – otherwise known for ignoring quite a few similar features offered by other authors as well – returned it with quite estranging comment, “There is not enough fighting in it.”

Surely, one could consequently draw a conclusion that the editor in question, but others as well, have turned it down in their own disbelief: the experience of this and several other authors is, however, that most likely none of the editors have ever taken a proper look at it – if they even ever opened the e-mails that contained the original draft. The end-result is that many consider the article above not to be “authoritative”, because it was “not printed”. If this is really the case should be left to each reader: bear always in mind, however, that many other events never found their way into the press, but this does not mean they never happened.

Certainly, as mentioned in the article above, Israeli sources continue to deny anything of this sort happened, stressing that “nothing special” was going on on 14 September 2001 in the Northern Command of the IDF/AF. This is in fact the most “powerful” argument many readers use as a “confirmation” that nothing happened on this day.

Surely, so the usual version, the IDF/AF has “always” published claims of its pilots. Those with deeper involvement in this topic, however, know much better: contacts within the IDF/AF confirmed to the author that the Israeli pilots usually cannot care less about what is being published to specific topics in the media or not, and certainly do not care if all of their “kills” are mentioned somewhere in the public or not. After all, the first two kills scored by Israeli F-15s against Syrian MiG-29s – on 2 June 1989 – were also never officially publicized, but the rumors about them are considered “authentic” nevertheless – probably because these were never denied by the Israelis. With other words: the fact that the Israeli pilots do not talk about this to the media means not this never happened.

The essential questions for those who are “not convinced” in this case are therefore:

- Is it really so that if something involving the IDF/AF happened is not confirmed by official Israeli authorities – then it never happened?

- Why would (inofficial) Syrian and US sources confirm each other even in regards of the names of downed SyAAF MiG-29-pilots if nothing happened on 14 September 2001?

- Why would even such an official authority like Syrian Foreign Minister admit that at least something did happen on this day – even if denying that this happened due to an Israeli action?

Only sober, objective answers to these questions can remove the remaining doubts.

Instead, sadly, the author of this article must conclude that several readers have failed to read the article above properly, specific persons to a degree where they ridicule their own subjective misunderstandings on different internet forums, believing they actually ridicule the author. I do not feel responsible nor have any understanding for such actions and can only suggest a proper and serious re-read of the article above: that would definitely help improve the understanding of the situation.

All that I can add is that almost two years since this article was originally written, and over one year after it was originally published on ACIG.org, I still have not found even a slightest trace of reason to correct any part of it – especially not in regards of 14 September 2001. Quite on the contrary, meanwhile I was even able to add even more of related information.

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