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U.S. eases trade restrictions to Syria rebel-held areas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday eased restrictions on exports to opposition-held areas in Syria to help rebuild shattered infrastructure in a move U.S. officials said will help facilitate oil sales from rebel-controlled areas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed a limited waiver of the Syria Accountability Act, allowing companies to apply for export license for such things as software, technology, water purification, food and agricultural equipment, and construction materials to opposition-held areas.

A senior U.S. official said the decision was aimed at enabling the opposition to work with companies and international organizations to rebuild areas, including damaged energy infrastructure such as oil pipelines and power lines.

"These items are intended to help address the critical needs of the Syrian people and facilitate reconstruction in liberated areas," the State Department said in a statement.

The U.S. Commerce Department will immediately begin accepting license applications for the export of items covered by the waiver, the statement added.

A senior U.S. official declined to speculate how much oil could be exported from Syria. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has estimated that average oil production in Syria from 2008 to 2010 was stable at about 400,000 barrels a day. But output fell to about 153,000 bpd in October 2012, a nearly 60 percent decline from March 2011.

Most of Syria's existing oil fields are located in the east near the border with Iraq or in the center of the country, east of the city of Homs. Reports indicate that special security units are deployed at many of the country's oil fields and facilities to protect them from sabotage, the EIA said.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday's decision had no effect on the provision of arms to rebels.

The Obama administration is meeting this week to discuss whether to arm the rebels ahead of a summit of G8 leaders hosted by Britain next week.

The summit is expected to discuss the arming of rebels by the United States, France and Britain, while also pushing for a peace conference to bring the warring sides together.

Backed by Hezbollah and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad has been gaining the upper hand in the two-year conflict, which has seen at least 80,000 people killed and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Turkey and Jordan.

Kerry met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington on Wednesday ahead of the G8 summit. Hague said Britain, the United States, allies in Europe and the region - a group known as the London 11 - may need to step up their efforts to help the opposition.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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