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Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 - Colombia, 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
Comments This report covers events of 1998
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Despite increased national and international attention to human rights and laws of war violations, the civilian toll in Colombia's war remained high in 1998. Presidential elections in June prompted calls for peace, but both guerrillas and paramilitaries, the latter often working with the acquiescence or open support of the security forces, launched offensives that dimmed hopes. At this writing, a new president, his cabinet, and a new military high command had yet to make the first steps necessary to end impunity and bring human rights criminals to justice. For their part, guerrillas continued to flout the laws of war even as they criticized government forces for violations.

Although exact figuresremained difficult to confirm and many cases went unreported or uninvestigated, the Data Bank run by the Center for Research and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP) and the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace (Justice and Peace), human rights groups, reported that 619 people were killed for political reasons in the first six months of 1998. In cases where a perpetrator was suspected, 73 percent of these killings were attributed to paramilitaries, 17 percent were attributed to guerrillas, and 10 percent to state agents. These figures did not include combatants killed in action.

Efforts to pass crucial human rights legislation stalled in Congress, including a military penal code reform and a bill criminalizing forced disappearances. The outgoing administration of Ernesto Samper failed to promote these measures aggressively, ignoring an opportunity to achieve crucial human rights reforms. That obligation passed to the government of Andrés Pastrana, who had not, at this writing, announced a plan for addressing issues like continuing military support for paramilitary groups and impunity.

The Colombian army continued to commit serious violations with little apparent will to investigate or punish those responsible. As in the past, at the root of these abuses was the Colombian army's consistent and pervasive failure to enforce human rights standards and distinguish civilians from combatants. In eastern Colombia, where paramilitary forces were weak, the army was directly implicated in the killing of civilians and prisoners taken hors de combat, as well as torture and death threats. In the rest of the country, where paramilitaries had developed a pronounced presence over the past decade, the army still failed to move against them and tolerated their activity, including egregious violations of international humanitarian law; provided some paramilitary groups with intelligence and logistical support to carry out operations; and actively promoted and coordinated joint maneuvers with them.

High-ranking army officers continued to claim that soldiers were directly implicated in fewer abuses than in years past even as the army's use and tolerance of paramilitaries persisted. As the Bogotá-based office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in its March 1998 report, "Witnesses frequently state that [massacres] were perpetrated by members of the armed forces passing themselves off as paramilitaries, joint actions by members of the armed forces or police and paramilitaries, or actions by paramilitaries enjoying the complicity, support or acquiescence of the regular forces."

Throughout the year, paramilitary threats of massacres were ignored by the security forces, which took few measures to protect civilians. In the case of Puerto Alvira, Meta, local officials and the Office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) warned authorities over a dozen times of an imminent attack. Nevertheless, paramilitaries seized the town unhampered on May 4 and reportedly killed at least twenty-one people, including store owners and a five-year-old child.

The Colombian army's Twentieth Brigade, which centralized military intelligence, was among the most feared units in Colombia until it was suspended pending a reorganization on May 19, 1998, in part because of human rights violations. Government investigators linked the Twentieth Brigade to the 1995 murder of prominent leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, an apparent plot to provoke a military coup d'etat.

In November 1997 four Twentieth Brigade intelligence officers were passed over for promotion, effectively ending their careers, and the military retired a former brigade commander. However, we are not aware of any criminal investigations of Twentieth Brigade commanders who presided over the unit when it amassed its homicidal record.

Impunity remained the rule for officers who violated human rights. Typical is the case involving the Naval Intelligence Network No. 7, responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions in and around the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander from 1991 through 1993. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quiñones and seven other soldiers planned, ordered, and paid hit men and paramilitaries to carry out these killings, all eight were speedily acquitted by a military tribunal in 1994.

A civilian court convicted two civilian employees of Naval Intelligence Network No. 7 for murder in 1998. In his ruling, the civilian judge described himself as "perplexed" by the military acquittals of the officers involved, since he considered the evidence against the officers "irrefutable... With [this acquittal] all that [the military] does is justify crime, since the incidents and the people responsible for committing them are more than clear," he wrote. In September, Colombia's Internal Affairs office (Procuraduría) also concluded that naval officers had formed, promoted, led, and financed paramilitary groups in order to carry out dozens of extrajudicial executions.

Although Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled in 1997 that cases involving members of the armed forces accused of violations of human rights and the laws of war should be prosecuted in civilian courts, the Superior Judicial Council, the body charged with resolving jurisdictional disputes between civilian courts and military tribunals, continued to rule frequently in favor of the military. The few cases transferred to civilian jurisdiction mainly involved police officers, not soldiers, and none ranked above the level of major.

As of this writing, the Pastrana administration had yet to announce its position on a bill, stalled in the Colombian Senate, to reform the military penal code. However, cases like the one involving Naval Intelligence Network No. 7 underscored the urgent need to pass such legislation to end the impunity so far guaranteed for officers by military tribunals.

Army officers who failed to arrest or even pursue paramilitaries continued to be shielded and even promoted. Instead of being sanctioned for allowing repeated paramilitary massacres in his jurisdiction in 1997, Seventh Brigade Commander Gen. Jaime Uscátegui was promoted to an elite unit in the department of Caquetá in 1998.

The National Police were also implicated in abuses, among them the extrajudicial executions of young men suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas. In areas where paramilitaries were present, police officers were directly implicated in joint army-paramilitary actions and sometimes organized paramilitaries and supplied information to them to assemble death lists. For instance, government investigators concluded in 1998 that police in La Ceja, Antioquia organized and deployed paramilitaries considered responsible for at least thirty killings in 1996 and 1997.

After the Catholic Church sponsored workshops on human rights in El Peñol, Antioquia in March 1998 and invited local police, organizers learned that police planned to attend only to take notes and photograph those present, suggesting an attempt to identify and later persecute human rights defenders or simply discourage residents from taking part. Subsequently, the workshop organizers began receiving telephone death threats.

After a flood of reports of abuses, including massacres, perpetrated by Special Vigilance and Private Security Services (Servicios de Vigilancia y Seguridad Privada, CONVIVIR) groups of civilians licensed by the government to provide local security, outgoing President Ernesto Samper suspended the creation of new associations. Renamed "Community Services" (Servicios Comunitarios), these associations were barred by the Constitutional Court from collecting intelligence for the security forces and receiving military-issued weapons, formerly common practices.

Meanwhile, government investigators launched investigations of army officers who set up and supported these associations without government approval. For example, the Las Colonias association in Lebrija, Santander was set up without government authorization by Gen. Fernando Millán at the Fifth Brigade base he commanded. The association regularly extorted money from residents and allegedly committed a series of killings, robberies, and death threats. Among its members before its dismantlement were several known paramilitaries from the Middle Magdalena region. The army high command prevented prosecutors from questioning Millán, then interposed a jurisdictional dispute, claiming that since Millán was on active service and carrying out his official duties, the case should be tried before a military tribunal. In October, the case, like hundreds before it, was sent to a military tribunal.

For their part, paramilitaries continued to commit massacres, murders of civilians and combatants hors de combat, torture, the mutilation of corpses, death threats, forced displacement, hostage-taking, and looting, among other violations. In the first eight months of 1998, for example, paramilitaries were linked to most of the massacres committed, meaning the killing of four or more people at the same place and at the same time. In many cases, bodies were also dismembered, decapitated, and mutilated with machetes, chain saws, and acid.

Among the most brazen massacres occurred in the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander. On May 16, 1998, the Santander and Southern Cesar Self-Defense Group killed eleven residents and arbitrarily detained at least thirty-one others. Subsequently, the group, one of seven allied under the United Self-Defense Groups (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), took responsibility for murdering most of the men they had arbitrarily detained and burning their bodies. The Attorney General's Office (Fiscalía) later linked at least one army soldier to the preparation for the paramilitary incursion.

Although the Attorney General's Office issued a growing number of warrants for paramilitary leaders, including AUC leader Carlos Castaño, the security forces made few arrests. A notable exception was the February 25 capture of Víctor Carranza, a powerful Castaño ally. Significantly, Carranza was captured by the civilian security agency attached to the Attorney General's Office, theTechnical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI), which did not notify security force agencies beforehand for fear they would alert Carranza.

Guerrillas also committed serious abuses in 1998. When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) perceived a political advantage, it emphasized its respect for the laws of war. However, when no political advantage was apparent, the FARC made little if any attempt to abide by these standards. For instance, Human Rights Watch received credible and consistent information about the FARC's use of the bodies of slain combatants as booby traps, an act of perfidy under the laws of war. After combat near Fomeque, Cundinamarca, on February 16, 1998, the army collected the bodies of three soldiers, which were flown by helicopter to Santafé de Bogotá. There, the explosives hidden in the body of Capt. Luis Hernando Camacho detonated, killing two soldiers and wounding five.

The Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista- Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) routinely executed soldiers and police officers taken hors de combat, often in front of dozens of witnesses. In the first six months of 1998 alone, the UC-ELN killed at least thirty-two civilians and combatants hors de combat according to the Data Bank.

In that same time period, the UC-ELN reportedly bombed the 770-kilometers-long pipeline linking Colombia's eastern oil fields with the Caribbean port of Coveñas over forty times. The UC-ELN targeted the pipeline not for military reasons but to extort money and make a political point about its opposition to the way Colombia deals with the multinational corporations.

The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL) also engaged in persistent and egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including the murders of the relatives of deserters. For instance, after EPL kidnap victims María Constanza and Juan Carlos Morales Ballesteros escaped with the help of an EPL militant, EPL guerrillas hunted down the man's family on November 18, 1997, and killed his mother and brother and wounded another brother in reprisal.

All guerrilla groups continued to engage in hostage-taking for extortion or to press a political point. According to the País Libre Foundation, a nongovernmental group that collects information on kidnaping, guerrillas are responsible for half of the estimated 1,088 kidnapings registered in the first seven months of 1998.

All parties to the conflict continued to use land mines. For instance, the UC-ELN used land mines in populated areas of Antioquia, Arauca, and Santander, among others, endangering the civilian population and causing casualties among farmers and children. Although Colombia signed the Mine Ban Treaty in December 1997, it has yet to ratify it.

Forced displacement continued to be a serious problem. According to the Displaced Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo a Desplazados, GAD), an alliance of human rights, church, and humanitarian aid groups, over one million Colombians have been displaced by violence. Chief among the causes of forced displacement were violations of human rights and the laws of war. Displacement was also caused by powerful business interests, which joined forces with paramilitaries to force poor farmers from their land, then occupied it or bought it for paltry sums.

Several regions buffeted by massacres, fighting, targeted killings, and threats produced forced displacement in 1998: the northern departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Cesar, and Norte de Santander; the Middle Magdalena region; and the region known as Urabá, bordering Panama and including northern Chocó department. Forced displacement also spread to new areas formerly at the margins of conflict, including the departments of Chocó and Putumayo.

Another relatively new phenomenon in 1998 was the persecution of leaders of displaced communities, accused by combatants of sympathizing with the enemy or arranging displacements as a military maneuver. On April 28, 1998, armed men claiming to belong to the ACCU seized six men from a Bello, Antioquia, settlement of forcibly displaced families, killing at least four and forcibly disappearing the rest.

Government measures to assist the displaced fell prey to lack of funding, insufficient coordination among government agencies, and poor information. Most displaced Colombians continued to live in misery and fear. Colombia's cities absorbed displaced families into their growing slums, and the displaced often lived on the margins of these already marginal settlements. Others took shelter in temporary camps. In August, hundreds of displaced families from southern Bolívar began arriving in Barrancabermeja, Santander, and negotiated an accord with the government for their safe return. However, even as families began the trek back to their homes and farms, new concerns were raised about their safety in a region still torn by combat.

In some cases, the government compelled the displaced to return to their communities despite its inability to guarantee their security. For example, according to virtually all informed observers and the displaced themselves consulted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, from the moment that the hundreds of Riosucio displaced arrived in Pavarandó and Turbo in late 1997, the government began pressuring them to return home. While many displaced people said that they wanted to return, they insisted that the government guarantee their security. In November 1997, the government announced that the displaced in Pavarandó had agreed to return home and would sign an agreement to that effect. But the displaced people refused to sign, because the agreement did not guarantee their security.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 1998, return "has been promoted even though minimum conditions of security could not be guaranteed and the causes which gave rise to the displacement had not been eliminated."

Prison conditions remained grim, especially for individuals believed to occupy middle to lower-level positions within insurgent organizations. While leaders were provided with virtual suites within maximum security facilities and access to foods and medicines of their choosing, rank-and-file prisoners lived in severely overcrowded cell blocks where acts of violence were common along with chronic shortages of food, water, and medical care. In a bloody incident that took place in April, fifteen inmates were killed in a gang clash in La Picota prison south of Bogotá.

According to the National Penitentiary and Jail Institute, which runs Colombia's prisons, 49 percent of prisoners overall hadnot yet been convicted of any crime. Although Colombia's prison were built to hold about 32,000 prisoners, the actual population was well over 43,000.

Defending Human Rights

Defending human rights remained a dangerous profession in Colombia. In the first nine months of 1998, at least six human rights defenders were murdered, among them government investigators, officials charged with investigating complaints about rights abuses. Among the most dangerous departments for human rights work was Antioquia. On February 27, 1998, three assassins gunned down human rights lawyer Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, president of the "Héctor Abad Gómez" Permanent Committee for Human Rights in Antioquia, in his Medellín office. He was the fourth president of the committee killed since 1987. As of this writing, two men with links to the AUC were under arrest in connection with the murder.

Less than two months after Valle's murder, three assassins killed human rights lawyer Eduardo Umaña in his Bogotá apartment. Umaña's murder came only a short time after the U.N. passed a declaration supporting the work of human rights defenders in Colombia. During a strike of state employees on October 19, Jorge Ortega, vice-president of one of Colombia's largest unions and a human rights defender, was killed. Ortega had been the target of many death threats and had made a final request for government protection the day before his murder. Nevertheless, the government had delayed providing him with a bodyguard, and Ortega was alone when he was shot by a gunman outside his Bogotá apartment.

The Colombian army's Twentieth Brigade continued threatening human rights defenders until shortly before the unit was suspended and later reorganized and renamed the Military Intelligence Center (Centro de Inteligencia Militar, CIME). After Human Rights Watch stated, correctly, that government investigators believed the killings of Valle and Umaña may have been linked to the Twentieth Brigade, the army commander singled out the Human Rights Watch director for the Americas for attack as an "enemy of Colombia." When a retired general and former defense minister was assassinated in Santafé de Bogotá the next day, May 12, 1998, the army again accused Human Rights Watch, this time of engaging in a "campaign of defamation and calumny against the military forces" that "led to the assassination."

Subsequently, the Twentieth Brigade supplied fraudulent information to the Attorney General's Office linking the crime to Justice and Peace, a respected human rights group. On May 13, soldiers seized the group's offices. Soldiers concentrated their search on the office of "Nunca Más," a research project sponsored by Justice and Peace that documents crimes against humanity. Soldiers forced employees to kneel at gunpoint, in order, they claimed, to take their pictures, an act more likely intended to inspire terror and evoke a summary execution. During the search, soldiers addressed employees as "guerrillas" and filmed them and documents in the office. At one point, soldiers told the employees they wanted precise details of the office in order to later construct a scale model, apparently to plan further incursions. Soldiers also set up a camera to film human rights defenders gathered outside to show concern.

The government's own investigators also were targeted. In September, judicial investigators Edilbrando Roa López and Jhon Alejandro Morales Patiño, assigned to the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit to investigate a series of massacres linked to paramilitaries in Sonsón, Antioquia, were abducted at a roadblock and later murdered. After the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's Office issued arrest warrants for Carlos Castaño and his elder brother, Fidel, as the alleged intellectual authors of the 1997 killings of CINEP employees Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado and her father, Carlos Alvarado, the unit received death threats from Castaño. Four of the suspected gunmen were under arrest.

In July, the Santander and Southern Cesar Self-Defense Group circulated a threat naming Osiris Bayther, president of the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Comité Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS), a Colombian human rights group that covers the Middle Magdalena region, and Heriberto Hernández, president of the Oil Workers' Union (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO) as "military targets" for allegedly working in coordination with guerrillas. Also threatened was Father Javier Giraldo, the director of Justice and Peace and a long-time advocate for an end to impunity for the security forces.

In the wake of the Valle and Umaña murders, the Samper administration allocated almost U.S. $1 million in emergency funds to protect threatened human rights defenders with bullet proof glass, security cameras, and reinforced office doors, measures recommended by the National Police. In addition, the Internal Affairs office (the government agency that investigates reports of official misconduct) had agreed to review government intelligence files in order to purge them of information criminalizing legitimate human rights work. However, as of this writing, not a single measure had been taken and the head of Internal Affairs had yet to begin a review of intelligence files.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

April 6, 1997 marked the official opening of the Bogotá office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by Amb. Almudena Mazarrasa and staffed by five experts and a deputy director. In 1998, the office continued to press the government on human rights issues, including reforms to the military penal code and respect for international humanitarian law. Experts traveled throughout the country to document abuses and held regular meetings with government officials, representatives of human rights groups, and Colombians wishing to deliver complaints.

During the fifty-fourth session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the office submitted its first report, which was considered hard-hitting. The report concluded that there was abundant evidence of continued joint military and paramilitary actions that ended with human rights violations as well as a disregard for the laws of war by all parties to the conflict.

In response, the Commission on Human Rights increased the number of experts in the Bogotá office from seven to twelve. Inaddition, High Commissioner Mary Robinson expressed her profound concern about Colombia and noted that most violations reported are attributed to paramilitaries often working with the tolerance of the security forces. Robinson also noted that many attempted killings, among them the so-called social cleansing operations against street people and homeless children, continued to occur. During her visit to Colombia in October, Robinson spoke out forcefully in defense of human rights defenders and against the impunity for officers that continues to reign in the tribunals run by the military.

European Union

Some European embassies and diplomats adopted a high profile in attempting to lessen political violence and the suffering it causes. For its part, the E.U. continued to press Colombia to improve its human rights record by issuing strong statements criticizing impunity and calling for the implementation of the recommendations of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. After the murders of human rights defenders Jesús María Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umaña, the European Parliament passed resolutions condemning the killings and calling on the Colombian authorities to investigate, "take urgent, effective and preventive measures to protect and safeguard the activity of those campaigning for human, social, trade union and peasant rights and political leaders," and dismantle paramilitary groups.

United States

The United States pursued a two-pronged policy in Colombia. On the one hand, the Clinton administration made human rights an important part of U.S.-Colombia relations and supported peace negotiations. At the same time, the war on drugs remained the centerpiece of U.S. policy. In fiscal year 1998, Colombia was slated to receive at least U.S.$119 million in U.S. counternarcotics assistance, including military equipment and training. The final budget for 1999 was expected to increase substantially with the addition of six Black Hawk helicopters for the National Police.

In 1998, the State Department issued its most detailed and critical human rights report ever on Colombia, concluding that "the armed forces committed numerous, serious human rights abuses." In addition, the report noted, "the Samper administration has not taken action to curb increased abuses committed by paramilitary groups, verging on a policy of tacit acquiescence." Addressing impunity, the report noted, "At year's end [1997], the military exercised jurisdiction over many cases of military personnel accused of abuses, a system that has established an almost unbroken record of impunity."

This report was followed by an April letter from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Sen. Patrick Leahy, co-sponsor of an amendment that placed human rights conditions on antinarcotics aid provided by the State Department. The so-called Leahy Amendment prohibited these funds from being provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the secretary of state had credible evidence that the unit had committed gross violations of human rights, unless the secretary determined and reported to the congressional appropriations committees that the government involved was taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.

In her letter, Secretary Albright announced that the spirit of the amendment would be applied to most antinarcotics aid, including monies suspended after Colombia was "decertified" a second time in a row in 1997 for failing to meet U.S. goals in fighting drugs. By mid-1998, only one Colombian army unit had been fully cleared to receive aid. U.S. officials asked the Colombian army to transfer out two officers belonging to an additional unit under consideration, the Twelfth Brigade, because of outstanding human rights allegations against them.

Human Rights Watch and other groups protested the idea that a simple transfer would satisfy the amendment, since it called for "effective measures" to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice. In general, the way in which the United States vetted security force units for human rights violations before they received aid remained largely secret, precluding full accountability.

In a welcome move in May 1998, the U.S. revoked the visa of Gen. Iván Ramírez to travel to the United States, allegedly because of his longstanding ties to drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and human rights violations. The Washington Post also reported that he had been a paid informant for the CIA, a charge he denied.

For its stand on the Leahy Amendment, the administration was harshly criticized by some Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who argued that human rights concerns hampered the drug war. Led by the International Relations Committee and its chair, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Republicans attempted unsuccessfully to remove the Leahy Amendment from the 1998 foreign operations bill. Instead, the Leahy Amendment was included in Section 570 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, significantly expanding its scope to included all antinarcotics assistance authorized under this legislation.

Nevertheless, the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Defense Department continued to work with Colombian security force units that had not been reviewed for human rights abuses, since aid is authorized under separate legislation that does not include human rights conditions. According to the Washington Post, U.S. officers continued to train Colombian units in "‘shoot and maneuver' techniques, counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering, even though their members have not been vetted." After similar programs in Indonesia and Rwanda were reported, Senator Leahy proposed legislation that would bar the Pentagon from holding joint exercises with human rights abusers unless the secretary of defense finds an extraordinary need to waive the law. The legislation had not been enacted as of this writing.

After a series of army defeats at the hands of the FARC in the first months of 1998, U.S. officials began speaking of Colombia as a threat to regional security and in need of direct counterinsurgency assistance for the military. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee on March 31, 1998, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Southern Command, called Colombia"the most threatened country in the United States Southern Command area of responsibility." Rather than discussing the country's serious human rights situation, however, after a visit to Colombia that same month Wilhelm told journalists that criticism of military abuses was "unfair" and that guerrillas abused human rights more frequently than the security forces or paramilitaries, an assertion that not only displayed a profound misunderstanding of human rights law, but also seriously misrepresented the facts, contradicting even the State Department's grim assessment.

Far from continuing to keep human rights at the top of the U.S. Embassy's agenda, new Amb. Curtis Kamman imposed a virtual blackout on public statements in support of human rights after assuming the post in March, a step backwards. Although embassy officials claimed that human rights remained on the private agenda, the net effect was negative, lowering the issue's profile and impact in Colombia at a crucial moment.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:

War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitrain Law, 10/98

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