According to the United Nations: “For the most part, the border between Afghanistan and Central Asia is remote and difficult to access. The Uzbek and Tajik borders are marked by the Panj River, while the area around the Turkmen border is mainly desert. There are more than eight official crossings with Central Asia including two river ports: 1). Hairatan (between Balkh province in Afghanistan and Sukhanraya province in Uzbekistan) and 2). Pianj-Sher Khan Bandar (between Khatlon province in Tajikistan and Kunduz province in Afghanistan). These two ports are the primary crossings in terms of trade volumes and infrastructure. On the Afghan side, many border crossings are alleged to be in the hands of corrupt government officials who greatly facilitate the shipping of drugs into Central Asia. This is a problem shared to a certain extent across the border. Some opiates completely bypass border crossings as traffickers may swim, wade and travel by boat across the river to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan while foot crossings are common along the Turkmen border. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Based on estimated demand in Central Asia and the Russian Federation, approximately 90 tons of heroin were trafficked from northern Afghanistan into Central Asia in 2010. Tajikistan accounts for most of the heroin flow, followed by Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Drugs seized in southern Tajikistan are often still in the original packaging from the Afghan laboratory and stamped with a quality insurance logo. Seizures in northern Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia are less likely to be encountered in this form, which may indicate repackaging upstream. At the same time, logos can be found as far afield as the Russian Federation, perhaps as the result of direct and uncut deliveries. |*|

Estimated volumes of heroin trafficked through Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan in 2010 (tons): A) Turkmenistan: two to four tons; B) Uzbekistan: eight to ten; V) Tajikistan: 75 to 80. Total: 90. Estimated volumes of opium trafficked through Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan in 2010 (tons): A) Turkmenistan: one to three; B) Uzbekistan: 15 to 17; C) Tajikistan: 18 to 20. Total 35-40. [Source: UNODC]

“Heroin aside, it is estimated that an additional 35-40 tons of opium were trafficked from Afghanistan to Central Asian markets in 2010. This figure, based on estimated consumption in Central Asia, is likely conservative, as it does not include potential opium trafficking to the Russian market, the consumption level and source of which remain unclear. UNODC estimates that nearly half of the opium flow travels through the borders of Tajikistan, followed closely by Uzbekistan and with Turkmenistan accounting for only a small proportion. |*|

“Altogether, Central Asian countries seized some 2,6 tons of heroin in 2010, less than 3 per cent of the estimated 90 tons trafficked through the region. Overall, regional seizures have decreased by 25 per cent in the case of heroin and by 36 per cent for opium, compared to seizures in 2009. One possible explanation for this decrease is a reported trend towards smaller shipments,reflected in the individual seizure data during 20102011. This also allows traffickers to spread the risk and mitigate against losses in response to the high volume of single seizures which occurred in 2008-2009. Another possibility is that the Central Asian opium route is strongly dependent on production in the northern region. In that case, dropping opium seizures may be due to an extended period of low opium production in northern Afghanistan. |*|

Opium and Heroin seizures in 1997: 9.9 tons; Heroin seizures in 1997: 2.1 tons; B) Opium seizures in 1998: 5 tons; Heroin seizures in 1998: 1.1 tons; C) Opium seizures in 1999: 9.5 tons; Heroin seizures in 1999: 1.4 tons; D) Opium seizures in 2000: 10.7 tons; Heroin seizures in 2000: 3.2 tons; F) Opium seizures in 2001: 4.7 tons; Heroin seizures in 2001: 5.1 tons; G) Opium seizures in 2002: 3.2 tons; Heroin seizures in 2002: 5.1 tons; H) Opium seizures in 2003: 2.9 tons; Heroin seizures in 2003: 6.8 tons; I) Opium seizures in 2004: 4 tons; Heroin seizures in 2004: 6.3 tons; J) Opium seizures in 2005: 2.7 tons; Heroin seizures in 2005: 3.8 tons; K) Opium seizures in 2006: 5.7 tons; Heroin seizures in 2006: 3.7 tons; L) Opium seizures in 2007: 6.2 tons; Heroin seizures in 2007: 3.3 tons; M) Opium seizures in 2008: 4.5 tons; 5.3 Heroin seizures in 2008: tons; N) Opium seizures in 2009: 3.5 tons; Heroin seizures in 2009: 3.4 tons; 0) Opium seizures in 2010: 2.2 tons; Heroin seizures in 2010: 2.6 tons. [Source: UNODC Regional Office for Central Asia]

“While opiate seizures have overall decreased in the region, seizures of acetic anhydride are notable for their absence. The sole acetic anhydride seizure in the last decade occurred in Tajikistan in 2010 and consisted of 440 litres. Outside the region, there have also been at least two documented attempts to smuggle the substance through Central Asia over the last five years, both of which involved diversion from Russian production and transiting through Tajikistan. The main river crossing along the Tajik-Afghan border is reported to be utilized for trafficking acetic anhydride, but there is little quantitative evidence to prove this.. |*|

Drug Trafficking Routes Through Central Asia

Most of the heroin, opium and other drugs that move from Afghanistan through Central Asia begin their journey traversing the Afghanistan- Tajikistan border. Drugs also move from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan or across the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus, Black Sea and the Balkans to Europe. The old routes from Afghanistan to Pakistan then to Europe by sea or from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey to the Balkans are still used.

According to the United Nations: “Generating an accurate picture of the nature of drug trafficking organizations including their trade routes is difficult due to their clandestine nature and the imperfect, fragmentary evidence available. Owing to the concentration of world opiate production in Afghanistan (93 percent of world supply), opiates traffick principally moves along three routes: the “southern route” through Pakistan, the “western route” through Iran and the “northern route” through Central Asia. As previously noted, over 99 percent of opiates transiting Central Asia are of Afghan origin and destined for the lucrative markets in Europe, the Russian Federation, and increasingly China. While drug abuse rates are generally higher along trafficking routes, the supply of drug trafficked in the region does not appear to respond significantly to localized demand. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Opiate seizures in Central Asia are concentrated in Tajikistan, where the majority of drugs are assumed to cross the border from Afghanistan following the “northern route” towards their primary markets in the Russian Federation and Europe.” |~|

Major Drug Routes in Central Asia

Major drug routes from Tajikistan : Route 1) Dushanbe - Saryasia (Uzbekistan) – Bukhara (Uzbekistan) – Tashkent – Shymkent – Taraz- Almaty – Balkhash - Karaganda- Astana – Kokshetau – Petropavlovsk – Russia. Route 2) Dushanbe - Saryasia (Uzbekistan) – Bukhara (Uzbekistan) – Tashavuz (Turkmenistan) – Kungrad (Uzbekistan) – Beineu – Opornaya – Makat – Atyrau – Ganyushkino – Russia. Route 3) Dushanbe – Chorjou (Turkmenistan) – Bekdash – Janaozen – Beineu – Opornaya – Makat – Atyrau – Ganyushkino – Russia. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

Major drug routes from Kyrgyzstan : Route 1) Bishkek – Korday – Almaty – Ayaguz – Georgievka – UstKamenogorsk – Russia; Route 2) Bishkek – Almaty – Saryshagan – Balkhash – Karaganda – Astana – Kokshetau – Petropavlovsk – Russia; Route 3) Bishkek – Taraz – Shymkent – Kyzylorda – Aktobe – Uralsk – Russia; Route 4) Bishkek – Chu – Almaty – Semipalatinks – Novosibirsk (Russia). |~|

Major drug routes from Uzbekistan: Route 1) Tashkent – Saryagash – Shymkent – Taraz – Almaty – Taldykurgan – Ayaguz – Georgievka – Ust-Kamenorogorskl – Russia; Route 2) Tashkent – Saryagash – Shymkent – Taraz – Shu – Birlik – Balkhash – Karaganda – Pavlodar - Russia; Route 3) Nukus – Beineu – Opornaya – Makat – Atyrau – Ganyushkino – Russia. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

Northern Route: the Main Drug Trafficking Route Through Central Asia

Heroin and opium following the “Northern Route” moves across the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border by small time smugglers who carry the drugs on mules, horses or their backs on mountain trails through the Pamirs. From the border the drugs are carried by car to Dushanbe or along the highway between Khorog, near the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. From Dushanbe the drugs move by highway, train and plane. Much of the drug cargo is carried in trucks, cars or minibuses. Some makes its way westward in diplomatic pouches. Much of it moves through Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and then to Russia where it makes its way to Europe along a number of routes.

According to the United Nations: “In 2010 an estimated 25 per cent of the 380 tons of heroin manufactured in Afghanistan -some 90 tons- was trafficked northwards through Central Asia via the Northern route and onward to the Russian Federation. The 90-ton total includes heroin consumed within Central Asia and the Russian Federation, as well as heroin seized by law enforcement or trafficked onward. More than three quarters of this amount are destined for the Russian market, with a small portion (approximately 3-4 tons) continuing to eastern and northern Europe. Furthermore, in 2010 between 35 and 40 tons of raw opium were trafficked through northern Afghanistan towards Central Asian markets. The entire 2010 opiate demand of the Northern route is required to transit or be produced in northern Afghanistan. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The Northern route developed in the 1990s, opening new markets for opiate suppliers in Afghanistan. The first seizures were reported in the mid-1990s in Central Asia, heralding an explosion of opiate use across the newly-formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Russian Federation is now one of the largest markets for Afghan opiates, consuming nearly one fifth of total Afghan heroin output in recent years. |*|

A lot of the drugs that pass through Tajikistan leave the country from Gorno-Badakhshan, a lawless region largely beyond the control of the government, and pass into Kyrgyzstan. From there they move by highway to Osh, a city in the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan. From there most of the drugs move on the rugged roads to Bishkek and then to Kazakhstan. Bishkek in very near the Kazakhstan city of Almaty. There is a lot of traffic and a lot of routes between Bishkek and Almaty and it is easy for smugglers get drugs across the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. The border between Kazakhstan and Russia is one of the world’s longest and most porous borders. It is even easier to move drugs across that border.

According to the United Nations: “Trafficking mostly occurs by road, although increasing seizures along regional train lines indicate that traffickers are diversifying their methods of operation. However, Kyrgyzstan is probably the preferred route for Tajik opiates given the country’s current situation of instability and ease of crossing into the mostly uncontrolled southern border with Tajikistan. The widespread corruption along the routes from Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan translates into a relatively short supply chain in terms of number of actors involved. In 2010, an estimated 70-75 tons of heroin reached Kazakhstan mainly from Kyrgyzstan and, to a lesser extent, from Uzbekistan. Relatively little heroin is seized in Kazakhstan, suggesting that the route is exceedingly well organized. Trade flows with its Central Asian neighbours are expanding, which may add to the existing challenge of guarding a 3,600 km-long border. Within Central Asia, Turkmenistan has a peripheral role for the Northern route. It has rather developed into a branch of the Balkan route that flows from the Islamic Republic of Iran into Turkey and Europe. Seizures of opiates are down across Central Asia and have reached their lowest level in over a decade. |*|

Northern Route in 2021

According to the UNODC: The northern route is used by trafficking groups from outside the subregion who use of citizens from various countries to traffic heroin on trucks via the Iran and countries in Central Asia, but also via the Russian Federation and Belarus, to final destinations in Western and Central Europe. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]

Examples of this trafficking pattern include: 670 kilograms of heroin originating in Afghanistan, which was seized in May 2019 in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany, on a truck on the way from Kyrgyzstan to Belgium driven by a Turkish national living in Kyrgyzstan; 1.1 tons of heroin seized in Kazakhstan on a truck that had departed the Iran for a final destination in Germany, which involved nationals from Germany, Iran, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia and Turkey; and the seizure of 550 kilograms of heroin in Minsk, Belarus, in November 2019 that had been trafficked via the northern route for onward trafficking to the European Union, again involving a number of foreign nationals.274 Seizures along the northern route of large heroin shipments destined for Western and Central Europe were not reported in 2020, however.

Trafficking in heroin along the northern route may have increased in 2019 while decreasing to final destinations in the Russian Federation Trafficking in heroin along the northern route, which goes from Afghanistan, through Central Asia mainly to markets located in the Russian Federation, has decreased substantially compared with two decades ago, when the heroin and morphine seized in countries along the route amounted to more than 10 tons and represented more than 10 percent of global seizures of those opiates trafficked from Afghanistan. The proportion was 4 percent in 2019, up from just 1 percent in 2018, reflecting an increase in the quantities of heroin seized along the northern route.

Through Turkmenistan to the Balkan Route

According to the United Nations: “ There are various supply chain structures in Central Asia. Trafficking through Turkmenistan appears to feed the Balkan route through the Islamic Republic of Iran rather than the Northern route. Turkmenistan is also unique in Central Asia as a destination country for Balkan route opiates. Traffickers increasingly utilize Central Asian railways to transport opiates to the Russian Federation and beyond. The size of some loads detected in 2010 suggests that traffickers are operating with a heightened confidence level. Massive seizures of hashish in containers destined to North America are a confirmation that railroad trafficking is also linked to transcontinental trafficking. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The Customs union agreement between Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Belarus can be misused, as traffickers may opt to re-route opiate deliveries to Europe through the Northern route, as opposed to the traditional Balkan route. There are plans to extend the Customs union agreement to other states such as Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, and possibly Tajikistan. Countering the flow of drugs is complicated by difficulties in co-ordinating efforts between national agencies within Central Asia and between this region and Afghanistan. This is reflected in limited intelligence sharing along lines of supply.” |*|

Central Asian Road and Rail Smuggling Routes

According to the United Nations: ““In Central Asia, traffickers have access to a well-developed road and rail network. Around 70-75 per cent of opiates are transported by truck or another vehicle across Central Asia through Kazakhstan to major cities in south-western Russia and western Siberia. Trains and planes usually account for approximately 15-25 per cent of trafficking. Seizures on trains have been on the rise as of 2011, particularly in Uzbekistan. Based on available data for Central Asia and Russia, in 2011 the average size of heroin seizures on trains was 6 kilograms, out of a reported 55 seizures (at the time of this writing). Shipments can, however, be much larger, as shown by two heroin seizures of 191 kilograms and 118 kilograms made in 2010 in the Russian Federation and Tajikistan, respectively. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Border management in this region may become more challenging given the recent Customs union agreement between Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, which will make Kazakhstan the last Customs check before the EU borders. Although the agreement will likely stimulate trade, the impact on drug trafficking remains unclear at the time of this writing. However, in general terms trade flows are increasing and, consequently, the number of TIR (Transports Internationaux Routiers) trucks across Central Asia is growing. This represents a growing concern for law enforcement agencies, which suspect that trafficking organizations are blending into licit flows by misusing the TIR agreements. This situation undoubtedly puts additional pressure on border controls. |*|

Number of trucks operating with TIR carnets in Central Asia (2006-2009); Tajikistan: 26 in 2006; 27 in 2007; 41 in 2008; 86 in 2009; Kyrgyzstan: 1,427 in 2006; 1,878 in 2007; 1,804 in 2008; 1,892 in 2009; Kazakhstan: 3,337 in 2006; 4,739 in 2007; 5,161 in 2008; 5,235 in 2009; Uzbekistan: in 2006; n/a; 900 in 2007; n/a in 2008; 1 400 in 2009. [Source: UNECE]

Northern Afghanistan and the Central Asian Heroin and Opium Trade

According to the United Nations: “In order to meet demand for illicit opiates supplied by the Northern route in 2010, 1000 tons in opium equivalents were required to transit or be produced in northern Afghanistan; however, sources which supply this demand remain unclear. Opium production in northern Afghanistan can account for very little of this supply requirement. Regional opium production has averaged 60 tons annually since 2007, leaving a supply gap of more than 900 tons in opium equivalents and requiring imports from other producing regions of Afghanistan and/or the use of existing local opiate stocks from earlier production in northern Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Northern Afghanistan sources heroin mostly from the southern and eastern parts of the country. The low volume of seizures heading northward highlights weaknesses in law enforcement manning these routes. Surprisingly, there is more evidence of opium flows from the largely poppy-free north than from the opium-rich south. In 2010-2011, several seizures of opium were reported en route from north to south, but hardly any seizures were made traveling in the opposite direction. More than 65 per cent of 2010 opiate consumption in Afghanistan is accounted for by regions with little or virtually no opium production, namely northern and central Afghanistan. By contrast, southern Afghanistan consumes the least but produces the most opiates. |*|

“Opium cultivation is likely to reappear in northern Afghanistan in order to replenish dwindling stocks. Otherwise, larger opiate supplies will be required from other regions of Afghanistan, notably from the opium-rich south, to compensate for the sustained low opium production in the north. Most internal opiate routes converge on Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The city is the key node connecting the various opiate producing regions of Afghanistan. The value of domestic and export sales of illicit opiates in northern Afghanistan was estimated to be close to US$ 400 million in 2010. Unlike in southern Afghanistan, Taliban and other Anti-Government Elements (AGE) are apparently not taxing the opium trade with any regularity in northern Afghanistan. |*|

“There are, however, specific locations in northern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan where AGE appear to be partially funding their operations through the drug economy, and in turn protect it from interdiction. Northern Afghanistan is one of the safest regions of the country, but it seizes very little opiates relative to its importance in processing and trafficking for the Northern route. Crime groups controlling the trade in this region also appear to operate with a high degree of impunity. Corruption rather than insecurity appears to be the main corollary to high-volume opiate trafficking in northern Afghanistan. The flow of opiates from northern Afghanistan into Central Asia has not lessened, but Central Asian seizure volumes dropped in 2010 despite increased capacity and relatively stable borders. In 2010, it is estimated that approximately 85 per cent of the opiate flow through Central Asia, passed through Tajikistan. |*|

Heroin Labs in Northern Afghanistan

According to the United Nations: “Northern Afghanistan, which is mostly poppy-free, is an important region for heroin manufacture. The manufacturing process mainly concerns white heroin hydrochloride (HCL), in line with the heroin reportedly consumed in Central Asia and the Russian Federation.19 Once processed, the heroin is measured into 1-kg units and wrapped in paper or placed in cloth bags, usually stamped with an identifying logo. A 10:1 ratio is used for conversion from opium to heroin hydrochloride (HCL). [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The bulk of the heroin manufacturing takes place in Badakhshan with a few smaller labs and less frequent manufacture in the provinces of Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Faryab and perhaps Balkh. Laboratories in Badakhshan are usually not permanent and some operate in border districts located only a few kilometres from the Tajik border. According to local law enforcement sources and UNODC field research, it is estimated that 40-50 heroin laboratories were active in northern Afghanistan as of 2010. The near-totality of their production is destined for export. Based on UNODC informal surveys, the estimated amount of heroin manufactured per laboratory in northern Afghanistan is on average 1 ton per year. On the basis of these estimates, 45 laboratories (midpoint) could potentially manufacture up to 45 tons of heroin annually or half the estimated Northern route demand of 90 tons. |*|

Opium Supplies in Northern Afghanistan

“Each laboratory can produce an average of one ton of heroin annually and requires two basic inputs - opium and acetic anhydride. While the source of acetic anhydride is eastern Afghanistan, the source of opium remains unclear. An obvious assumption would be production in the southern or western regions of the country, but there is insufficient evidence of significant south-to-north or west-to-north opium trafficking in the form of seizures or intelligence reports. There is also a disincentive for southern or western traffickers to move opium northward, given that in 2010 opium prices in northern Afghanistan were the lowest in the country.

Opium production in Afghanistan by region 2010-2011 (metric tons): A) Central Afghanistan: 8 in 2010; 9 in 2011; Eastern Afghanistan: 56 in 2010; 166 in 2011; Northern Afghanistan: 51 in 2010; 56 in 2011; Southern Afghanistan: 2979 in 2010; 4,924 in 2011; Western Afghanistan: 478 in 2010; 685 in 2011. [Source: UNODC]

The presence of opium stocks and the limited number of detected opium imports are unlikely to account alone for the Northern route demand of 90 tons of heroin. This suggests that large volumes of heroin are being trafficked northward from other regions of Afghanistan. The logistics of these operations are insufficiently known due to limited seizure data, but the information available points to heroin inputs from the south (Hilmand and Kandahar provinces) and east (Nangarhar province) to northern Afghanistan and further to Central Asia. This study estimates that approximately half of the Northern route’s heroin demand is produced in northern Afghanistan laboratories mostly from existing opium stocks. The remainder is thought to be sourced from other regions of Afghanistan. According to the region, the groups managing this trade depend to varying extents on a mixture of ethnic/tribal affiliations, political alignments, 'pure' business dealings and long-term friendships. |*|

From Northern Afghanistan Into Central Asia

According to the United Nations: “The bulk of heroin is trafficked using routes in the Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in order of importance. While the task of border management with Afghanistan is clearly complicated by cross-border ethnic or family ties, these are not the main facilitating factor in enabling trafficking operations. In fact, a look at the ethnic dynamics at play in some key bordering areas of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan paints a different picture. Depending on the border area, drug routes seem to be determined by a combination of linguistic links, geographic proximity and available opportunities. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Despite improvements to customs controls and the large-scale coverage of border guards, the majority of Northern route opiates continues to flow nearly uninterrupted into Tajikistan. Both large, well-organized groups and small entrepreneurs appear to be engaged in trafficking. Entrenched corruption and the strength of criminal organizations in Tajikistan make this flow largely invisible relative to its importance. Trafficking into Tajikistan, or Central Asia in general, is not always smooth. The lethal exchanges between traffickers and the Tajik border guards in particular, as well as the Turkmen and Uzbek border guards, are a testimony to the insecurity associated with cross-border smuggling. Beyond the Central Asian border, armed confrontation between traffickers and law enforcement is rare and generally confined to the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border. |*|

“Although it borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan receives the bulk of its heroin via Tajikistan before the drug flow continues onto Kazakhstan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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