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Baird cancels funding to Canadian-Syrian group

By Jessica Murphy, Senior Washington Correspondent

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OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird did a 180-degree pivot Wednesday and killed $2 million in promised funding for a little-known Canadian-Syrian group working to deliver medical supplies in the war-torn country.

Baird confirmed Wednesday afternoon the last minute decision not to fund the Ottawa-based Canadian Relief for Syria (CRS) group.

"When we sat down after the announcement to look at the contribution agreement that's where we saw some of the issues that were causing concern," he said.

"We'll find alternatives. We're already in touch with allies such as the United Kingdom, Turkey, the United States to look at what we can do co-operatively to fund medical supplies, whether they be for the opposition who have been so brutally targeted or whether they be civilians who no longer have access to medical care."

The minister didn't explain what caused the sudden change of heart, only noting he wanted funds going directly to the victims of the Assad regime and not "warehouses and infrastructure," adding the situation in Syria remained a "top priority" for his department.

Earlier Wednesday, Baird defended the funding -- announced last week during his visit to Lebanon and Jordan -- but admitted it would be difficult to ensure medical supplies sent to Syria don't fall into the hands of the regime or Islamist groups rumoured to be operating in the country.

Concerns were immediately raised about why Canada chose to give money to a new organization that's still in the process of seeking charitable status.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the government's decision to fund the CRS, saying bureaucrats carefully vetted all organizations that received federal cash.

Momtaz Almoussly, a board member with CRS, said his group had been chosen because it already has a network of doctors and nurses in Syria set up to deliver needed medical aid.

The CRS funding was in addition to $15 million in humanitarian aid the government already promised for more established humanitarian organizations like the UN World Food Programme.

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