World News

Dry lightning risk rises in US, thanks to tardy monsoon

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – The annual monsoon that drenches the US South-west is late this year, raising the risk of wildfires sparked by another of the region’s meteorological quirks: dry lightning.

While heavy rain isn’t expected in the normally arid area until mid-July, thunderstorms continue to form high above the Earth. But the air below is so parched that raindrops can evaporate on their way down. The only things that strikes the ground are lightning bolts – dry lighting.

The phenomenon, which also occurs in Australia, is blamed for many of the wildfires that charred more than 3 million acres in the US West last year.

The threat is particularly severe in Arizona, Nevada and parts of Southern California, where utilities plan to cut power during high-risk conditions. And the strikes are notoriously difficult to forecast because they just need a storm to pass over a sliver of dry air.

“The difference between a wet strike and a dry strike can be 500 feet (152m),” said Mr Heath Hockenberry, national fire weather programme manager for the National Weather Service.

Dry lightning can occur in any desert or semi-arid region that draws in moisture from nearby oceans. The dry air that makes rain drops evaporate also dries out plants, making it easier for lightning to start fires.

One storm in 2008 sparked hundreds of fires across California in a single night that took weeks to tame.

“As global warming causes temperatures to rise, evaporation rates are increasing, causing increased drying of vegetation,” said Mr Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections. “The risk of lightning-sparked wildfires will increase.”

Dry strikes are hard to forecast because they require finding a arid pocket in the atmosphere that can be just 500 feet thick, Mr Hockenberry said. A typical thunderstorm can rise to 50,000 feet above the Earth. So a dry layer that can cause all the trouble is just 1 per cent of a raindrop’s journey to the ground.

The monsoon that typically starts soaking Arizona and New Mexico this time of year may not arrive until mid-July. Across 11 western states almost 67 per cent of the land is abnormally dry and 46 per cent is locked in some form of drought as of June 23, according to the US Drought Monitor. Almost half of California is in drought.

While the monsoon may ease threats in the South-west, “July is the entry point into the core of the western fire season,” according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued Wednesday (July 1). This means the threats will rise throughout California, the Pacific North-west and the central and northern Rocky Mountains.

The fire threat eases for much of the West in mid-September, but for California the severity creeps up with the start of the fall gusts, marked by the Diablo and Santa Ana winds.

The fire threat comes as PG&E Corp, which serves Northern California, has emerged from bankruptcy after its equipment sparked devastating blazes in 2017 and 2018 and left it facing US$30 billion (S$41.84 billion) in liabilities.

There are 44 large fires burning now in 9 states, and the threat of dry lightning is increasing the risk. The National Weather Service issued warnings this week across the West.

There have been more than 24,000 wildfires so far this year, burning 1.4 million acres, compared with about 19,700 blazes for the first half of 2019 that consumed about 1,10,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho.

There’s hope that the risk of fires from dry lightning will diminish in the next few weeks. Some forecasts show a large high-pressure system emerging across the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, Mr Hockenberry said.

That may draw moisture off the ocean and trigger the monsoon that will soak the ground and bring rain to accompany the lightning.

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Police arrest 746 people in record sting after cracking criminals’ secret code

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Among those rounded up were underworld kingpins and drug lords. Loot seized included £54million in cash, 77 firearms, 1,800 rounds of ammunition and £80million of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The National Crime Agency (NCA) boasted that entire organised crime networks had been dismantled and 200 lives saved from murders and gangland executions.

Nikki Holland, the NCA’s director of investigations, said being able to infiltrate the mobile phone network was like “having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country”.

She added: “This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.”

The NCA also revealed Operation Venetic had snared a few allegedly corrupt law enforcement officials but declined to give further details.

Dame Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, which made 171 of the arrests, described the operation as a “game changer”.

She added: “We will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result for weeks, months and possibly years to come.”

The wave of arrests – with more across Europe – was made possible by specialist officers in France deciphering the gangsters’ military-grade EncroChat system two months ago. The breakthrough, after four years of painstaking work by police throughout Europe, was akin to cracking the Enigma code in the Second World War, according to the NCA.

EncroChat, based in France, was set up in 2016 and used exclusively by criminals. Handsets were Android and cost £3,000 a year to lease.

It is thought there were 60,000 users, with 10,000 in Britain. Features of the system included self-destructing messages and “panic wipe”, where all the data on a device could be destroyed by entering a code from the lockscreen. Officers uncovered details of plots to cut off arms, legs and hands, attack rivals with acid and shoot competitors as part of turf wars.

Forensic tests are now being carried out on seized firearms to identify weapons used in murders.

Other crimes being investigated include drug-running, money laundering, kidnap and acid attacks. NCA deputy director Matt Horne said: “This is very much about the organised crime gangs operating on street corners, on estates and across communities across the entire UK.”

Every British police force was involved. Suffolk Police’s Chief Constable Steve Jupp said: “This has sent a shockwave throughout a tier of criminals who considered themselves to be untouchables.”

Police were congratulated on their “significant achievement” by Home Secretary Priti Patel. EncroChat had been a thorn in the side of law enforcement for many years.

Drug dealers Andrew Venna and Matthew Cornwall, who operated in Stroud and Gloucester, used Encro Chat before they were jailed last May.

Mark Fellows and Steven Boyle, jailed for life in Liverpool last year for the killings of John Kinsella and Paul Massey, also used it.

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‘Demanding’ Meghan Markle claims drop in ocean compared to what was going on behind scenes

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Meghan was unhappy with the Kensington Palace communication team and their general policy not to comment on press inquiries and reports, a source has said. However, the palace could not defend the Duchess of Sussex on a story she was particularly upset about because the claims were largely true, another source added. 

Newly-released documents submitted by the Duchess of Sussex’ lawyers in response to questions raised by The Mail on Sunday had yesterday led to believe Meghan was accusing members of the Royal Family of not protecting her from the media scrutiny.

However, a source told The Times the claims made by Meghan’s legal team refers to the palace machinery and her former media representatives rather than her in-laws.

Voicing concerns, the source said: “No one thinks this is going to end well. For anyone.”

Meghan is believed to have been particularly angry at the palace’s response on two stories followed by the press between mid-2018 and 2019. 

The first concerned the resignation of her PA, Melissa Toubati, only six months after the Royal Wedding on May 19 2018.

A widely reported source at the time claimed the French assistant had “put up with a lot” before quitting.

They told the Daily Mirror: “Her job was highly ­pressurised and in the end it became too much. She put up with quite a lot.  

“Meghan put a lot of demands on her and it ended up with her in tears.

“She is hugely talented and played a pivotal role in the success of the royal wedding.

“She’ll be missed by everyone in the household.  

“Melissa is a total professional and fantastic at her job, but things came to a head and it was easier for them both to go their separate ways.”

While Meghan was dissatisfied with this story, the communication teams at Kensington Palace found it difficult to deny press reports as they were largely true, according to another source who spoke with The Times.

The source claimed: “The stories were a drop in the ocean compared to what was going on”.    

Meghan was also upset at the relentless attacks of her half-sister Samantha Markle and the lack of response from Kensington Palace.

However, the Times wrote, palace staff was not going to get involved with opinions voiced by a private citizen based in Florida.

In late 2018, Ms Markle was understood to have been included on a “fixated persons list” by the police royalty and specialist protection unit, flagging the “reputational risk” that she posed to the Royal Family with her attacks to the Sussexes.

Kensington Palace’s communication team represented Meghan and Harry between May 2018 and the spring of 2019, when it was announced the couple would create a new media team based at Buckingham Palace. has contacted Kensington Palace for comment.

Lawyers for Meghan made a court filing on June 30 after the Mail on Sunday asked for further information relating to the ongoing High Court case. 

Asked to explain why the Duchess was “vulnerable” at the time of the newspaper printed her private letter to her father Thomas Markle Snr, Meghan’s legal team said: “The Claimant had become the subject of a large number of false and damaging articles by the UK tabloid media, specifically by the Defendant, which caused tremendous emotional distress and damage to her mental health.

“As her friends had never seen her in this state before, they were rightly concerned for her welfare, specifically as she was pregnant, unprotected by the Institution, and prohibited from defending herself.”

Following the Mail on Sunday’s decision to publish extracts of a personal letter the Duchess sent to her father, Meghan sued Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Mail on Sunday as well as the Daily Mail and the MailOnline, for misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.

The newspaper denies the claims.

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‘One MILLION livelihoods already lost’ ahead of big reopening, hospitality tycoon warns

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Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Jeremy Goring, CEO of The Goring Hotel group in London, warned the hospitality industry in the UK is set to see “mass unemployment” this year despite hotels, pubs and restaurants reopening on Saturday after months of coronavirus lockdown measures. He warned: “I’m currently witnessing across, particularly London, but across the UK’s hospitality, mass unemployment taking place.

“Many, many restaurants are never going to reopen, some of those are icons, people that we’ve looked up to when we were learning the business.

“Some of the great chefs are now saying I’m not coming back.

“It does look very much like it could be one million livelihoods that are lost for the foreseeable future.

“I’m seeing it happening right now.”

More to follow…

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What Hong Kong losing its 'special status' would mean

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the US treats Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of China with its own legal and economic system, differently than the Chinese mainland in trade, commerce and other areas.

President Donald Trump has begun stripping away that “special status” to punish China for moves to tighten its grip on the city after a year of pro-democracy street protests.

At its most extreme, that could mean the global financial hub being treated the same as any other Chinese city – a seismic shift that could harm both economies at an already difficult time. China has already begun retaliating.

1. Is the special status gone?

It’s going. On May 27, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo notified Congress that the Trump administration no longer regarded Hong Kong as autonomous from mainland China. On June 29, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the special status had therefore been revoked.

2. What’s been the impact?

In an opening salvo, Pompeo announced visa restrictions against unspecified Chinese officials; China did the same against Americans. Mr Pompeo said the US would also cease selling defence equipment to Hong Kong, a largely symbolic act that will mostly affect the city’s police and corrections forces. The Commerce Department made it harder to export sensitive American technology to Hong Kong by suspending special treatment in areas including export licence exceptions; Hong Kong’s leader said the impact would be “minimal”. More far-reaching measures could follow. The city is still treated differently from the mainland when it comes to tariffs, for instance.

3. Why so slow?

It’s up to Mr Trump to decide how quickly he wants to move while he’s also threatening consequences for China over its handling of the coronavirus and its repression of minorities in Xinjiang province. Hurting China also carries additional risks for the US economy, including the US-China trade deal that Mr Trump had considered one of his biggest achievements, which could affect his odds of winning re-election. Mr Trump has made harsh comments but hasn’t threatened specific punishments for the Beijing government.

4. What’s at stake for Hong Kong and China?

While Hong Kong remains a key gateway from China to the rest of the world, it matters far less to the country’s fortunes than it once did. In 2019, 12 per cent of China’s exports went to or through Hong Kong, down from 45 per cent in 1992. China is also far less reliant on inflows of foreign capital and expertise, and has made a much lower priority of making the yuan an international currency. Nonetheless, the city still matters. Hong Kong’s open capital account and adherence to international standards of governance are unmatched by any mainland Chinese city and make it an important base for international banks and trading firms. Revoking the special status would be “the nuclear option” and “the beginning of the death of Hong Kong as we know it”, said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute.

5. And their financial markets?

One worst-case scenario: if the US treats Hong Kong no differently than any other Chinese city, why wouldn’t ratings firms and investors do the same? It’s a question posed by Deutsche Bank, which noted that S&P Global Ratings has Hong Kong three notches above China while Moody’s and Fitch have Hong Kong one notch higher. The risk is that China’s own rating gets lowered in coming years and drags Hong Kong’s with it. At the same time, equity index providers may take a fresh look at Hong Kong, which is currently in the MSCI World Index with other developed markets. China is in the emerging market index, raising the question, should Hong Kong be treated the same as Shanghai and Shenzhen?

6. What about for the US?

It has its own reasons for not rocking the boat too much. Hong Kong, the only semi-democratic jurisdiction under Chinese rule, offers US companies a relatively safe way to access the Chinese market and employs a US dollar peg, linking it with the American financial system. According to the Congressional Research Service, the largest US trade surplus in 2019 was with Hong Kong – US$36 billion (S$50.1 billion). Hong Kong counted 278 US companies with regional headquarters in the city that year and another 457 with offices. Hong Kong’s first justice minister after the handover to China in 1997, Ms Elsie Leung, told the South China Morning Post in May that any damage would be mutual: “We are not just getting the benefits – it’s a free-trade arrangement which is good for both sides.”

7. How has China responded?

Despite the US action, Chinese lawmakers approved new national security legislation for Hong Kong anyway. The Foreign Ministry has promised unspecified retaliation against what it terms foreign interference, insisting Hong Kong is purely an internal affair. China said last year it would sanction some US-based activist groups including the National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, and suspend port visits by US Navy ships to Hong Kong. The official Xinhua News Agency has dismissed as “groundless” accusations about the loss of freedom or human rights issues in Hong Kong. It also noted that the 2018 Human Freedom Index compiled by the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank, ranked Hong Kong at No. 3, well ahead of the US at No. 17.

8. And Hong Kong?

The city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has defended the national security law (as has Mr Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest tycoon). Mrs Lam also has said it would be “totally unacceptable” for foreign legislatures to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, and that sanctions would only complicate the problems in the city. (Mrs Lam was selected in 2017 by a committee of 1,200 political insiders overwhelmingly loyal to the Chinese government.) She has sought to reassure investors that the city still adheres to the rule of law and has an independent judiciary. She also has defended police actions.

9. Is this what the protesters have been seeking?

As a largely leaderless movement, the Hong Kong protests have made no official request for international assistance. But some prominent activists including Mr Jimmy Lai and Mr Joshua Wong called on Mr Trump to hit China hard with sanctions, even to the point of revoking the city’s special trading status. Mr Wong had testified last year in Washington in favour of the Bill, seeking to put pressure on China. On the streets of Hong Kong, some protesters have made clear their interest in US support by waving American flags, singing The Star-Spangled Banner and calling on Mr Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong.

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David Starkey’s ‘so many damn blacks’ comment is ‘indefensible’

Historian David Starkey is facing a backlash after he said slavery was not genocide because there are “so many damn blacks” still around.

Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University has said it is considering his position as an honorary fellow after the comments.

Starkey, 75, made the comments during an online interview with conservative commentator and Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes for the YouTube channel Reasoned UK.

During the interview, Starkey said: “Slavery was not genocide otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?

“An awful lot of them survived and again there’s no point in arguing against globalisation or western civilisation. They are all products of it, we are all products of it.

“The honest teaching of the British Empire is to say quite simply, it is the first key stage of our globalisation.

“It is probably the most important moment in human history and it is still with us.”

He has received widespread criticism over the remarks, including from former chancellor Sajid Javid.

“We are the most successful multi-racial democracy in the world and have much to be proud of,” Mr Javid said.

“But David Starkey’s racist comments (‘so many damn blacks’) are a reminder of the appalling views that still exist.”

In a statement Fitzwilliam College said they will “not tolerate racism”, adding that his comments are “indefensible”.

Publisher Harper Collins tweeted: “The views expressed by David Starkey in his recent interview are abhorrent and we unreservedly condemn them. Our last book with the author was in 2010, and we will not be publishing further books with him. We are reviewing his existing backlist in light of his comments and views.”

Starkey has also resigned from the board of the Mary Rose Trust, which oversees the Tudor Mary Rose ship, according to the organisation.

The trust said in a statement that they were “appalled” by his comments, adding: “Mary Rose Trust is a charity that exists for the benefit of everyone and we have zero tolerance for such comments.”

British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga tweeted: “This is truly disgusting. And by the same ridiculous, twisted logic the Holocaust would not be counted as a genocide.”

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s chief executive Olivia Marks-Woldman also criticised his comments.

She said: “To suggest a genocide did not take place because some of those who were persecuted survived is dangerous, damaging and completely reprehensible.

“His words are abhorrent and as a historian with a considerable platform and following, David Starkey’s irresponsible and racist views should be widely condemned.”

Grimes has been criticised for not challenging the views and instead nodding along as Starkey continued to speak.

He later released a statement about his interview, saying he “wasn’t engaged enough” in the conversation.

He added: “It goes without saying that Reasoned UK does not support or condone Dr David Starkey’s words.

“I am very new to being the interviewer rather than the interviewee and I should have robustly questioned Dr Starkey about his comments.

“However, whether it’s on the BBC, ITV, Sky News or on YouTube, no interviewer is responsible for the views expressed by their guests.”

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Cast of Michael Bay's new pandemic-themed movie Songbird issued a 'do not work" order

LOS ANGELES – The cast of Michael Bay’s pandemic-themed movie, Songbird, can take a breather for a while, as the movie has been issued a “do not work” order from the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

The production was issued the order because “the producers have not been transparent about their safety protocols” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, an American magazine.

The organisation told the Hollywood Reporter on Thursday (June 2) that they are taking safety protocols “very seriously” and that the film’s producers “have not yet become signatory to our agreement.”

The statement continued: “The producer of the picture entitled ‘Songbird,’ has failed to complete the signatory process and is therefore not signed to any applicable SAG-AFTRA agreement. As such, SAG-AFTRA members are hereby instructed to withhold any acting services or perform any covered work for this production until further notice from the union.”

Songbird tells the story of people navigating a pandemic and was set to start production in Los Angeles this month. Bay, whose notable movies include Bad Boys (1995) and Transformers (2007), cast popular favourites such as Demi Moore, Craig Robinson and Paul Walter Hauser in the movie.

The news comes after Hollywood was given the all-clear signal on June 12 to resume film and television productions in Los Angeles County, while abiding by strict rules that include testing of on-set employees, social distancing, cleaning of props and sets, as well as a coronavirus compliance officer being installed on-set, according to Fox News.

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UK PM's father Stanley Johnson within rights to visit Greece: minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, who travelled to Greece likely via Bulgaria despite current advice for British nationals to avoid all but essential international travel, was within his rights to do so, Britain’s transport minister said on Friday.

“It’s advice so everyone can decide what to do with the advice,” Grant Shapps told Sky News.

Asked whether Stanley Johnson was within his rights to travel to Greece, Shapps said: “Yes, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make it clear. They issue travel advice.”

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Dominic Cummings backs £100m air-scrubber plan to remove CO2

Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings is backing an experimental scheme to tackle climate change by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air.

Called direct air capture, it is technology which was first used on World War Two submarines. 

The air scrubbers use a chemical solution to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, which is then stored underground.

The CO2-laden solution would then be stored underground, reducing the amount of the climate change gas in the atmosphere.

Cummings has authorised £100 million from the Treasury to further develop the technology to enable Britain to reach its climate change requirements, according to The Times.

He has also won the support of Tim Leunig, the chancellor’s economic adviser, who is also backing it.

Cummings reportedly believes with significant early investment in the technology, Britain could become a world leader in the area.

The UK’s target is to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and some experts think without efforts to remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere, it will be next to impossible to meet this goal.

But critics fear the direct air capture project could distract from more conventional and proven projects to cut emissions, such as the government’s pledge to spend £9 billion on insulating homes.

One Whitehall source claimed: ‘Dom had become obsessed by this. He’s the one who has been pushing it despite huge scepticism from officials. But he’s got his way.’

Research also suggests the technology is incredibly expensive and requires tremendous energy. For each one tonne of CO2 captured, it costs £500.

But experts believe that with government and private sector investment, these costs could be reduced to less than £100 per tonne. has approached Number 10 for comment.  

Mr Cummings has been laying low since it emerged he drove 260 miles from London to his family home in Durham with his four-year-old and wife Mary Wakefield, who was suffering with Covid-19 symptoms, at the end of March.

At the time, government advice was to not travel except for essential reasons such as food or work and to self-isolate at home if they or a member of their household developed symptoms. He has denied any wrongdoing but has come under fierce criticism from the public.

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Beaches beckon as England to end quarantine for more than 50 countries

LONDON (Reuters) – England’s coronavirus quarantine rules for more than 50 countries including Germany, France, Spain and Italy is to end, the British government said on Friday, allowing millions of holidaymakers to head to Europe’s beaches for a summer break.

From July 10 passengers visiting places viewed as low risk will not need to self-isolate when they return, while those from higher risk countries will have to quarantine for 14-days under a rule which has infuriated airlines and the travel industry.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has struggled to scrap the rules and has so far failed to convince the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to immediately follow suit.

“There will be a list of 50 plus countries and if you add in the overseas territories, 60 something or other that we will publish later today,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

“Today marks the next step in carefully reopening our great nation,” he said.

The full list has not yet been published by the government which has been debating for days how to lift the quarantine. New Zealand is included in the list as are the Vatican and Britain’s overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.

Britain’s foreign ministry will also set out exemptions from its global advisory against “all but essential” international travel from July 4, a key to normal insurance being valid.

The government said it expected countries included on the quarantine-free list for England would reciprocate by relaxing their own travel restrictions.

The move to ditch the quarantine comes as England’s High Court is due start hearing a legal challenge by British Airways, a move backed by low-cost rivals Ryanair and easyJet.

All the airlines as well as others in the travel sector have announced thousands of job losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and had said the quarantine had no scientific basis and was unworkable in practice.

Britain said it would still require all travellers, except those from the exempted countries, to provide their contact information including their travel history on arrival. People who have been in or transited through non-exempt countries will still have to self isolate for 14 days.

England and Northern Ireland will reopen pubs this weekend, signalling a gradual reopening of its economy. Scotland will allow pubs to reopen fully later in July. Wales will allow pubs to serve outside on July 13.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned people to maintain social distancing rules and is expected to repeat that caution at a news conference on Friday.

“Anyone who flouts social distancing and COVID-Secure rules is not only putting us all at risk but letting down those businesses and workers who have done so much to prepare for this new normal,” he will say.

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