LONDON -- Love her or loathe her, one thing's beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.
The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation -- breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher's spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London. Flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87 year old. Queen Elizabeth II authorized Thatcher to have a ceremonial funeral -- a step short of a state funeral -- to be held at St. Paul's Cathedral in London with military honours.
Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a trip to Madrid and Paris to return to Britain following news of Thatcher's death, and his office confirmed that Thatcher would be cremated following the ceremonial funeral. It did not provide further details, saying only the arrangements were in line with the wishes of Thatcher's family.
For admirers, Thatcher was a saviour who rescued Britain from ruin and laid the groundwork for an extraordinary economic renaissance. For critics, she was a heartless tyrant who ushered in an era of greed that kicked the weak out onto the streets and let the rich become filthy rich.
"Let us not kid ourselves, she was a very divisive figure,'' said Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's press secretary for her entire term. "She was a real toughie. She was a patriot with a great love for this country, and she raised the standing of Britain abroad.''
Thatcher was the first -- and still only -- female prime minister in Britain's history. But she often found feminists tiresome and was not above using her handbag as a prop to underline her swagger and power. A grocer's daughter, she rose to the top of Britain's snobbish hierarchy the hard way, and envisioned a classless society that rewarded hard work and determination.
She was a trailblazer who at first believed trailblazing impossible: Thatcher told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 that she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime.
But once in power, she never showed an ounce of doubt.
Story continues under gallery.
Margaret Thatcher and Pierre Trudeau as shown in Australia in this Oct. 4, 1981 file photo.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter sips saki with fellow G-7 leaders at the Tokyo summit in 1979. Right foreground is Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at left and French President Giscard d'Estaing.
Prime Minster Trudeau visits Huntly Station, Australia on October 4, 1981. With Trudeau is (r-l) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Australian Prime Minister John Malcolm Fraser and Dennis Thatcher.
Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, walk in the gardens at the Palace of Versailles June 5, 1982.
Then opposition leader Brian Mulroney shakes hands with Thatcher as he leaves the British High Commissioners residence in Ottawa following a brief tete-a-tete, Sept. 26, 1983.
Economic Summit leaders Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney and Helmut Kohl follow Margaret Thatcher into a courtyard at Hart House in Toronto, June 20, 1988.
June 19, 1988. Toronto Economic Summit of G7 Leaders. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
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Politics - Helmut Kohl Visit - Chequers, Buckinghamshire
Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany at ease in the grounds as they had three hours of 'relaxed and very friendly' talks at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence. They agreed more emphasis should be laid on the warmth of Anglo-German relations.
Thatcher and David Cameron meet for dinner
Baroness Thatcher and Conservative leader David Cameron meet for dinner at the Goring Hotel in Victoria, south-west London.
Denis and Margaret Thatcher
Baroness Margaret Thatcher reunited with her husband Sir Denis Thatcher, this afternoon when he returned home after spending the last few weeks recovering from his six-hour coronary by-pass operation. * Sir Denis the husband of former Conservative Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, who is 87-years-old, said he was looking forward to a relaxing weekend in their home in Belgravia, West London. 15/6/03: His family said that the 88-year-old had been readmitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital in London for tests following major heart surgery in January. *30/10/03: Baroness Thatcher will be joined by her twin children, Carol and Mark, at a memorial service to pay tribute to her late husband, Sir Denis Thatcher. Sir Denis died in June, aged 88 having undergone major heart surgery six months earlier from which it appeared he had made a good recovery.
Soccer - Valley Parade Fire - Bradford
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis survey the debris of Bradford City's main stand at Valley Parade, where 56 people died and 265 were injured as a fire swept the packed stand just before half-time of the game against Lincoln City.
Order of the Garter ceremony
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh sit with the Knights and Ladies of the Garter in the Waterloo Room at Windsor Castle before a Garter Service at St George's Chapel in the castle grounds. * The Knights and Ladies of The Most Noble Order of the Garter are, from left: front row, The Duke of Grafton, The King of Spain, The Queen of Denmark, The Duke of Gloucester, The Princess Royal, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Kent, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, The Queen of the Netherlands, The King of Norway. Second row; Page of Honour The Honorable John Bowes-Lyon, Sir Edward Heath, The Duke of Devonshire, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, The Duke of Wellington, The Chancellor Lord Carrington, Lord Richardson of Duntisbourne, Lord Bramall, Viscount Ridley, Lord Kingsdown, Baroness Thatcher, Page of Honour Lord Carnegie. Third row; Lord Inge, The Duke of Abercorn, Lord Ashburton, Sir Edmund Hilary, Sir Timothy Coleman, Sir William Gladstone and Sir Anthony Acland.
Royalty - State Visit of Queen Beatrix - 10 Downing Street
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (l) and Prince Claus (2nd from right) with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street.
Politics - PM Margaret Thatcher - Clydach Vale, Rhondda Valley
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Welsh Secretary Peter Walker at Clydach Vale in Rhondda Valley, where she saw derelict land being reclaimed as part of a factory development.
Margaret Thatcher's papers
File photo dated 26/4/1982 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Wide divisions within the Conservative party over how the Government should respond to Argentina's invasion of the Falklands are revealed today as Margaret Thatcher's 1982 private papers are made public.
Margaret Thatcher's papers
File photo dated 01/10/88 of Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as Lady Thatcher's 1982 private papers include a number of brief mentions of figures who would go on to play a significant role in public and political life. They include an early meeting with Robert Mugabe, who had been elected as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Royalty - Queen Beatrix and Margaret Thatcher - London
Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus of the Netherlands meet with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street during their state visit to Britain.
Margaret Thatcher's papers
File photo dated 17/06/07 of Margaret Thatcher and the Duke of York as a hand-written note by Lady Thatcher appears to show how she grappled with her response to the Duke of York's deployment as part of the Falklands task force.
Margaret Thatcher's papers
EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY MARCH 22 File photo dated 01/10/88 of Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as Lady Thatcher's 1982 private papers include a number of brief mentions of figures who would go on to play a significant role in public and political life. They include an early meeting with Robert Mugabe, who had been elected as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Margaret Thatcher Lays Flowers at Bradford City Fire Site
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, watched by her husband Denis, lays a wreath among the hundreds of other floral tributes near the turn stile area of the Bradford City football ground, Yorkshire, where many of the 52 victims of the tragedy were found.
Margaret Thatcher - General Election
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher leaving 10 Downing Street after the Conservative Party won a convincing majority in the General Election.
Dutch Royalty - Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Claus - 10 Downing Street - London
During the second day of their State visit to Britain, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Claus are greeted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, London, for luncheon.
Politics - Thatcher Education Secretary - 1970
Conservative MP Margaret Thatcher (the future British Prime Minister), Secretary of State for Education and Science.
Politics - Thatcher wedding day - 1951
Unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Dartford, Margaret Hilda Roberts, 26, on the day of her wedding to Denis Thatcher at Wesley's Chapel, in London.
Politics - Conservative Women's Conference - 1973
A popular event in the two-day programme of the Conservative Women's Conference was the address on education by Margaret Thatcher, Education Secretary.
Politics - Thatcher Wedding Day - 1951
Unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Dartford, Margaret Roberts, 26, at her wedding to 36-year-old Denis Thatcher at Wesley's Chapel, in London.
Politics - Conservative Party Conference - Blackpool - 1970
Prime Minister, Edward Heath sports a smile which lasted during a three-minute ovation he received at the opening of the annual Conservative conference at the Winter Gardens. Sharing the platform with him is Margaret Thatcher, Secretary for Education and Science.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - 1975
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative MP, receives a kiss from her husband Denis.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - 1975
Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher, at working her office at the House of Commons.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - 1975
Conservative MP Margaret Thatcher, 49, in her Chelsea home kitchen, before making her challenge for the Conservative Party leadership and a place in political history.
Politics - Thatcher and Reagan - 1975
Former California Governor Ronald Reagan presenting a silver dollar medallion to Opposition Leader Margaret Thatcher when he visited her in her House of Commons office.
Politics - Conservative Local Government Conference - 1979
Margaret Thatcher speaking at the Conservative Local Government Conference at Caxton Hall, London, when she angrily accused the Government of having tried to whip up non-existent emotions in the referendum campaigns.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - Shadow Education Secretary - 1969
Margaret Thatcher, spokesperson on Education in the Conservative Shadow Cabinet, at the Houses of Parliament.
Politics - General Election 1979
Margaret and Denis Thatcher get away from it all with their 25-year-old twins, Mark and Carol, by strolling through the grounds of Scotney Castle, Kent where Mrs Thatcher has a National Trust flat. She is relaxing before the battle ahead to become the first female Prime Minster.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - Chelsea, London
Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher in a jubilant mood outside her Chelsea home, after Tory victories in by-elections at two former Labour strongholds - Workington and Walsall North.
Politics - Conservative Party Conference - Blackpool - 1977
Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher with 16 year old Rother Valley schoolboy, William Hague, after he received a standing ovation from delegates at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.
Silver wedding anniversary.
Margaret and Denis Thatcher with their children, Mark and Carol, at their Chelsea home on the day of their silver wedding anniversary.
Politics - Margaret Thatcher - Vacuum Interrupters Ltd - 1981
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wears protective clothing as she tours the premises of Vacuum Interrupters Ltd.
Politics - General Election 1979
Margaret Thatcher waves from the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street in Whitehall, London, on the day of the General Election.
Politics - General Election 1979
Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher in a thoughtful mood when she hosted her party's press conference in London, as the 1979 General Election campaign entered its final week.
Politics - First Female Prime Minister - Downing Street - 1979
Britain's first women Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher arrives at no.10 Downing Street to take up office following the Conservative victory in the general election.
Politics - Conservative Party Conference - Blackpool - 1979
A jubilant Margaret Thatcher acknowledging the standing ovation after her speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
Thatcher Falkland Island surrender talks
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher facing an enthusiastic reception from well-wishers outside No 10 Downing Street, in London, on her return from the Commons, where she told MPs talks on a surrender by Argentina of the Falkland Islands were in progress.
Margaret Thatcher in garland.
Margaret Thatcher addressing a crowd at Stoneleigh near Coventry wearing a garland presented to her by an Asian constituent.
Politics - General Election 1983
Margaret Thatcher with her husband Denis greets supporters at a rally in Fleetwood during her campaign visit of the North West.
Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory
10th JUNE: On this day in 1983 Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory to start her second term of power. The window of success frames the jubilant Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waving to well-wishers after her election win. At Tory Party headquarters, she told flag-waving supporters "My victory is greater than I had dared to hope".
Politics - Thatcher and Tongan king - 1983
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher looks pensive as she awaits the arrival of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.
Politics - General Election 1983
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returning to 10 Downing Street after winning the election. Instead of entering her official residence, she insisted on walking to the end of the street and the corner of Whitehall to shake hands with well-wishers.
Politics - Reagan and Thatcher - 1984
Ronald Reagan has a word in the ear of Margaret Thatcher on the day that Thatcher becomes the longest-serving Prime Minister in the 20th century.
Politics - Thatcher and Reagan - 1984
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, left, with American President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy.
Thatcher could be intimidating to those working for her: British diplomats sighed with relief on her first official visit to Washington, D.C., as prime minister to find that she was relaxed enough to enjoy a glass of whiskey and a half-glass of wine during an embassy lunch, according to official documents.
Like her close friend and political ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher seemed motivated by an unshakable belief that free markets would build a better country than reliance on a strong, central government. Another thing she shared with the American president: a tendency to reduce problems to their basics, choose a path, and follow it to the end, no matter what the opposition.
She formed a deep attachment to the man she called "Ronnie'' -- some spoke of it as a schoolgirl crush. Still, she would not back down when she disagreed with him on important matters, even though the United States was the richer and vastly stronger partner in the so-called "special relationship.''
Thatcher was at her brashest when Britain was challenged. When Argentina's military junta seized the remote Falklands Islands from Britain in 1982, she did not hesitate, even though her senior military advisers said it might not be feasible to reclaim the islands.
She simply would not allow Britain to be pushed around, particularly by military dictators, said Ingham, who recalls the Falklands War as the tensest period of Thatcher's three terms in power. When diplomacy failed, she dispatched a military task force that accomplished her goal, despite the naysayers.
"That required enormous leadership,'' Ingham said. "This was a formidable undertaking, this was a risk with a capital R-I-S-K, and she demonstrated her leadership by saying she would give the military their marching orders and let them get on with it.''
In deciding on war, Thatcher overruled Foreign Office specialists who warned her about the dangers of striking back. She was infuriated by warnings about the dangers to British citizens in Argentina and the difficulty of getting support from the U.N. Security Council.
"When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them,'' she said in her memoir, "Downing Street Years.'' ''And anyway what was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the queen's subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was prime minister.``
Thatcher's determination to reclaim the islands brought her into conflict with Reagan, who dispatched Secretary of State Alexander Haig on a shuttle mission to London and Buenos Aires to seek a peaceful solution, even as British warships approached the Falklands.
A private diary kept by U.S. diplomat Jim Rentschler captures Thatcher at this crisis point.
"And here's Maggie, appearing in a flower-decorated salon adjoining the small dining room (...) sipping orange juice and sherry,'' Rentschler wrote. "La Thatcher is really quite fetching in a dark velvet two-piece ensemble with grosgrain piping and a soft hairdo that heightens her blond English coloring.''
But the niceties faded over the dinner table.
"High colour is in her cheeks, a note of rising indignation in her voice, she leans across the polished table and flatly rejects what she calls the 'woolliness' of our secondstage formulation,'' Rentschler writes.
Needless to say, Haig's peace mission soon collapsed.
Story continues under gallery.
The relatively quick triumph of British forces revived Thatcher's political fortunes, which had been faltering along with the British economy. She won an overwhelming victory in 1983, tripling her majority in the House of Commons.
She trusted her gut instinct, famously concluding early on that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represented a clear break in the Soviet tradition of autocratic rulers. She pronounced that the West could "do business'' with him, a position that influenced Reagan's vital dealings with Gorbachev in the twilight of the Soviet era.
It was heady stuff for a woman who had little training in foreign affairs when she triumphed over a weak field of indecisive Conservative Party candidates to take over the party leadership in 1975 and ultimately run as the party's candidate for prime minister.
She profited from the enormous crisis facing the Labour Party government led by Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan. Britain was near economic collapse, its currency propped up by the International Monetary Fund, and its once defiant spirit seemingly broken.
The sagging Labour government had no parliamentary majority after 1977, and the next year it suffered through a "winter of discontent'' with widespread strikes disrupting vital public services, including hospital care and even grave digging. The government's effort to hold the line on inflation led to chaos in the streets.
Britain seemed adrift, no longer a credible world power, falling from second- to third-tier status.
It was then, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, that she came to the unshakable, almost mystical belief that only she could save Britain. She cited a deep "inner conviction'' that this would be her role.
Events seemed to be moving her way when she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979, with a commitment to reduce the state's role and champion private enterprise.
She was underestimated at first -- by her own party, by the media, later by foreign adversaries. But they all soon learned to respect her. Thatcher's "Iron Lady'' nickname was coined by Soviet journalists, a grudging testament to her ferocious will and determination.
Thatcher set about upending decades of liberal doctrine, successfully challenging Britain's welfare state and socialist traditions, in the process becoming the reviled bete noire of the country's leftwing intelligentsia.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain's unions. It was a reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.
It is for this that she is revered by free-market conservatives, who say the restructuring of the economy led to a boom that made London the rival of New York as a global financial centre. The left demonized her as an implacably hostile union buster, with stone-cold indifference to the poor. But her economic philosophy eventually crossed party lines: Tony Blair led a revamped Labour Party to victory by adopting some of her ideas.
Thatcher was the West's most outspoken opponent of imposing economic sanctions on South Africa's minority government to end apartheid. She contended such sanctions cost jobs, including in Britain, hurt South Africa's black majority most and harden white resistance to change.
In 1986, Britain's Cabinet unanimously supported her resistance to such sanctions. As a result, protests ensued and many accused her of supporting the apartheid regime.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925. She learned the values of thrift, discipline and industry as the dutiful daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and Methodist lay preacher who eventually became the mayor of Grantham, a modest-sized town in Lincolnshire 110 miles (180 kilometres) north of London.
Thatcher's personality, like that of so many of her contemporaries, was shaped in part by the traumatic events during her childhood. When World War II broke out, her hometown was one of the early targets for Luftwaffe bombs. Her belief in the need to stand up to aggressors was rooted in the failure of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempt to appease Adolf Hitler rather than confront him.
Thatcher said she learned much about the world simply by studying her father's business. She grew up in the family's apartment just above the shop.
"Before I read a line from the great liberal economists, I knew from my father's accounts that the free market was like a vast sensitive nervous system, responding to events and signals all over the world to meet the ever-changing needs of peoples in different countries, from different classes, of different religions, with a kind of benign indifference to their status,'' she wrote in her memoirs.
"The economic history of Britain for the next 40 years confirmed and amplified almost every item of my father's practical economics. In effect, I had been equipped at an early age with the ideal mental outlook and tools of analysis for reconstructing an economy ravaged by state socialism.''
Educated at Oxford, Thatcher began her political career in her mid-20s with an unsuccessful 1950 campaign for a parliamentary seat in the Labour Party stronghold of Dartford. She earned nationwide publicity as the youngest female candidate in the country, despite her loss at the polls.
She was defeated again the next year, but on the campaign trail she met Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman whom she married in 1951. Their twins, Mark and Carol, were born two years later.
"She was beautiful, gay, very kind and thoughtful,'' Denis Thatcher said in an interview 25 years later. "Who could meet Margaret without being completely slain by her personality and intellectual brilliance?''
As the first male Downing Street spouse, Denis Thatcher stayed out of the limelight to a large degree while supporting his wife on her many travels and public engagements. He was said to give her important behind-the-scenes advice on Cabinet choices and other personnel matters, but this role was not publicly discussed.
Margaret Thatcher first won election to Parliament in 1959, representing Finchley in north London. She climbed the Conservative Party ladder quickly, joining the Cabinet as education secretary in 1970.
In that post, she earned the unwanted nickname "Thatcher the milk snatcher'' because of her reduction of school milk programs. It was a taste of battles to come.
As prime minister, she sold off one state industry after another: British Telecom, British Gas, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, British Coal, British Steel, the water companies and the electricity distribution system among them. She was proud of her government's role in privatizing some public housing, turning tenants into homeowners.
She ruffled feathers simply by being herself. She had faith -- sometimes blind faith -- in the clarity of her vision and little use for those of a more cautious mien.
Success in the Falklands War set the stage for a pivotal fight with the National Union of Miners, which began a 51-week strike in March 1984 to oppose the government's plans to close a number of mines.
The miners battled police on picket lines but couldn't beat Thatcher, and returned to work without gaining any concessions.
She survived an audacious 1984 assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army that nearly succeeded. The IRA detonated a bomb in her hotel in Brighton during a party conference, killing and injuring senior government figures, but leaving the prime minister and her husband unharmed.
Thatcher won a third term in another landslide in 1987, but may have become overconfident.
She trampled over cautionary advice from her own ministers in 1989 and 1990 by imposing a hugely controversial ``community charge'' tax that was quickly dubbed a ``poll tax'' by opponents. It was designed to move Britain away from a property tax and instead imposed a flat rate tax on every adult except for retirees and people who were registered unemployed.
That decision may have been a sign that hubris was undermining Thatcher's political acumen. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London and other cities, leading to some of the worst riots in the British capital for more than a century.
The shocking sight of Trafalgar Square turned into a smouldering battleground on March 31, 1990, helped convince many Conservative figures that Thatcher had stayed too long.
"How could a leader who was wise make 13 million people pay a tax they had never paid before? It just showed that she was no longer thinking in a rational way,'' one of her junior ministers, David Mellor, said in a BBC documentary.
For Conservatives in Parliament, it was a question of survival. They feared vengeful voters would turn them out of office at the next election, and for many that fear trumped any gratitude they might have felt for their longtime leader.
Eight months after the riots, Thatcher was gone, struggling to hold back tears as she left Downing Street after being ousted by her own party.
It was a bitter end for Thatcher's active political career -- her family said she felt a keen sense of betrayal even years later.
In 1992, she was appointed in the House of Lords, taking the title Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
Thatcher wrote several bestselling memoirs after leaving office and was a frequent speaker on the international circuit before she suffered several small strokes that in 2002 led her to curtail her lucrative public speaking career.
Denis Thatcher died the following year; they had been married more than a half century.
Thatcher's later years were marred by her son Mark Thatcher's murky involvement in bankrolling a 2004 coup in Equatorial Guinea. He was fined and received a suspended sentence for his role in the tawdry affair.
She suffered from dementia in her final years, and her public appearances became increasingly rare. British media reported that Thatcher had been staying at the Ritz -- where she died Monday -- because her Belgravia home did not have an elevator and she was having difficulty getting around.
She is survived by her two children, Mark Thatcher and Carol Thatcher, and her two grandchildren.
AP writers Cassandra Vinograd, Raphael Satter, Paisley Dodds and Jill Lawless contributed to this report.
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