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U.S., BRITAIN, FRANCE TO FREEZE NAZI GOLD

The United States, Britain and France have agreed to freeze the distribution of $68 million in gold bars that were looted by the Nazis from European central banks, and Clinton administration officials say the gold could form the core of a fund to compensate Holocaust victims.

The gold bars have been stored in the vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and at the Bank of England since Switzerland, Sweden and other nations turned them over to Allied powers at the end of World War II.Most of the estimated 337 metric tons of gold collected from those secret accounts, worth nearly $4 billion at current gold prices, was long ago returned to central banks across Europe after they had been systematically looted by Nazi troops as they moved across Europe. But the group administering the disbursement of the gold, called the Tripartite Commission, still has $68 million that was supposed to be distributed to the central banks early this year. The commission was then scheduled to go out of existence.

Jewish groups led by the World Jewish Congress intervened, however, claiming that some part of the gold came from private citizens in Europe, especially Jews whose assets had been seized as they were sent to death camps. The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, asked that the money be placed in a restitution fund for Holocaust victims, and his group began legal action in Britain last year to stop the last disbursement. The action has since been suspended.

Now the Clinton administration, citing newly found evidence to support those claims, says it has convinced Britain and France to hold on to the remaining gold until the three countries - and European nations that were the intended recipients of the $68 million - can weigh the new evidence. If they determine that much of the gold stolen from the central banks was intermingled with privately owned assets, they would face the immensely complicated logistical and political problem of deciding who should receive the gold.

"We've taken the first step, freezing the money in place," said Stuart Eizenstat, an undersecretary of commerce. "But we don't have any agreement yet on what to do next."

The decision to freeze the $68 million came as Switzerland and its banks agreed, in principle, to set up another fund to benefit Holocaust survivors, who maintain that Swiss banks have refused to turn over funds from accounts that Jews established in Switzerland to keep their assets from falling into Nazi hands.