U.S. plans medical, food aid for Syria fighters-sources

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:08am IST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is expected to provide medical supplies and food aid to Syrian fighters, a policy shift to directly help those opposing President Bashar al-Assad's forces on the ground, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States continues to oppose providing lethal assistance and said it also will not provide such items as bullet-proof vests, armored-personnel vehicles and military training for now.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, where he is likely to announce the steps following talks with the opposition and a "Friends of Syria" meeting on Thursday, declined comment.

The planned steps reflect a U.S. desire to be seen to be doing more to help the opposition in the conflict, in which the United Nations estimates that some 70,000 people have died since it erupted nearly two years ago.

It would be short of a full-blown military intervention, for which Washington appears to have no appetite.

U.S. President Barack Obama has carefully avoided deeper involvement in Syria, at the heart of a volatile Middle East, as he has withdrawn troops from Iraq and extracts them from Afghanistan.

One source said the United States also was expected to announce a large increase in assistance to the Syrian National Coalition, the civilian opposition group whose leaders Kerry will meet on Thursday.

The source said this group would receive substantially more than the rebel fighters, but declined to divulge either sum.

The United States so far has provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance training to the Syrian civilian opposition, according to U.S. State Department fact sheet.

It also has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and for internally displaced people in Syria, channeling this money through non-governmental organizations.

It has not, however, previously given aid directly to the rebel fighters.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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