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U.S. expected to increase aid to Syrian rebels

Caption
(Paul J. Richards)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, right, greets US Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of a meeting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London, Wednesday April 10, 2013. Kerry is meeting in London with Syrian opposition leaders and Russia's top diplomat, a day after saying the U.S. could soon step up aid to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Kerry is in London for a G8 foreign ministers' meeting today and Thursday. (AP Photo/Paul J. Richards, pool)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration's next step in aid to Syrian rebels is expected to be a broader package of nonlethal assistance, but expanding from food and medical supplies to body armor and night-vision goggles, as the U.S. grapples for ways to stem the bloodshed from Syria's civil war.

However, President Barack Obama has not given final approval on any new package and an announcement is not imminent, a senior administration official said. The U.S. continues to oppose directly arming the Syrian rebels, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of rebels like those who have allied themselves with al-Qaida in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at the new nonlethal aid package this week, saying the administration had been holding intense talks on how to boost assistance to the rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Those efforts have been very much front and center in our discussions in the last week in Washington," Kerry said Tuesday, a day before meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in London. "I'm not sure what the schedule is, but I do believe that it's important for us to try to continue to put the pressure on President Assad and to try to change his calculation."

During Wednesday's meeting, the Syrian opposition leaders asked Kerry and other top Western diplomats specifically for military equipment, according to a senior State Department official who was present.

Kerry told them that the U.S. was looking at different options to help the rebels, but made no promises about any specific types of future aid, said the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the meeting and demanded anonymity.

Kerry also urged the opposition to organize itself better and said he'd attend a meeting April 20 in Istanbul bringing together the Syrian opposition's big donor nations from Europe and the Arab world.

The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed during more than two years of fighting between rebels and government forces.

Britain and France have already been shipping armor, night-vision goggles and other military-style equipment to the rebels.

Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $60 million nonlethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition. The aid package marked the first direct American assistance to the opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad. It was greeted unenthusiastically by some rebel leaders, who said it did far too little.

While the Obama administration continues to resist arming the rebels, the U.S. has said it would not stand in the way of other nations that decide to take that step.

Senior officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon held a high-level meeting Friday that focused on Syria.

Among those who attended Kerry's meeting in London Wednesday were the Syrian opposition's interim prime minister, Hassan Hitto; Vice Presidents Suheir Atassi and George Sabra; Secretary-General Najib Ghadbian and the opposition's envoys to the United States and Britain.

Kerry then met one-on-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks on the Syrian civil war. The U.S. and Russia have frequently been at odds over the conflict in Syria, with Moscow opposing action at the U.N. Security Council that would increase pressure on Assad.

The State Department official said Russia offered no indication that it was softening its position on Syria. Kerry reiterated the U.S. preference for a political solution that includes Assad leaving power, the official said, and agreed to continuing discussing the situation in Syria with Lavrov and other top diplomats during an evening meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

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Klapper reported from London.

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