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OSLO (Reuters) - Syria's civil war has prompted the first withdrawal of seeds from a "doomsday" vault built in an Arctic mountainside to safeguard global food supplies, officials said on Monday.
The seeds, including samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions, have been requested by researchers elsewhere in the Middle East to replace seeds in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo that has been damaged by the war.
"Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," said Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Crop Trust, which runs the underground storage on a Norwegian island 1,300 km (800 miles) from the North Pole.
The vault, which opened on the Svalbard archipelago in 2008, is designed to protect crop seeds - such as beans, rice and wheat - against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease.
It has more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations. Even if the power were to fail, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for at least 200 years.
The Aleppo seed bank has kept partly functioning, including a cold storage, despite the conflict. But it was no longer able to maintain its role as a hub to grow seeds and distribute them to other nations, mainly in the Middle East.
Grethe Evjen, an expert at the Norwegian Agriculture Ministry, said the seeds had been requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 because of the war.
ICARDA wants almost 130 boxes out of 325 it had deposited in the vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples, she told Reuters. They will be sent once paperwork is completed, she said.
It would be the first withdrawal from the vault, she said. Many seeds from the Aleppo collection have traits resistant to drought, which could help breed crops to withstand climate change in dry areas from Australia to Africa.
Syria's four-year civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, with 7.6 million displaced within Syria.
Reporting by Alister Doyle; editing by Andrew Roche, Larry King