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US frees up fraction of frozen Syria funds

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By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Trump administration on Thursday freed up a fraction of some $200 million in frozen funds for Syria stabilization programs, a move that leaves nearly $195 million in limbo.

The State Department said President Donald Trump had authorized it and the U.S. Agency for International Development to spend $6.6 million to support the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization, and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, a U.N. agency that is investigating war crimes committed during the conflict. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the money was for "the continuation of the vital, life-saving operations" of the White Helmets and to help the U.N. ensure those responsible for war crimes "are ultimately held accountable."

Her statement made no mention of the remaining $193.4 million that remains frozen, and officials could not say whether a decision had been made to eliminate it all together.

Trump has vowed to end the U.S. presence in Syria as soon as the fight against the Islamic State group is complete and has demanded that other donors contribute to reconstruction efforts.

Last month, the State Department announced that it had ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria's northwest. Islamic State militants have been almost entirely eliminated from that region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces.

The $200-million pledge was made by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February. Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining a robust U.S. presence in Syria, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a donors' conference in Kuwait.

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