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Today, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a new aid package for Syrian rebels. For the first time, the administration is vowing to send aid directly to the people who are fighting to topple the regime in Syria. At a meeting in Rome, Kerry had the chance to hear from some of them and from countries backing the rebels. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story from Rome.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: European and Arab foreign ministers met at a hilltop villa in Rome, at a time when Syrians in Aleppo are facing deadly Scud missile attacks. Secretary Kerry says there was an urgent feeling around the table that more needs to be done to help the Syrian opposition and to convince Bashar al-Assad he can't shoot his way out of this.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I heard this morning the story of maybe 50 to 70 young men and women who were taking an exam, dreaming of their future, whose lives were snuffed out by one of Bashar Assad's Scud missiles. That's what he thinks of the future and of the people of Syria.
KELEMEN: But time has run out for Assad, Kerry said, as he announced a $60 million aid package to help the Syrian opposition coalition provide basic services in areas under rebel control, and Kerry says President Obama agreed to offer some aid to rebel fighters.
KERRY: The president will now extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition's supreme military council. So there will be direct assistance to them, though nonlethal.
KELEMEN: State Department officials wouldn't comment on a report in The New York Times that the U.S. is already training Syrian rebels. It would only say that other rebel requests are under review. Kerry says the goal of this new U.S. approach to provide direct assistance is to boost the chances of those Syrians who are fighting for democracy.
KERRY: The stakes are really high, and we can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists. In supporting the Syrian opposition coalition and the Free Syrian Army, we reject both of those choices.
KELEMEN: While the U.S. has been worried about the rise of jihadists among Syrian rebels, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, argues that fear is overblown. He spoke through an interpreter.
MOAZ AL-KHATIB: (Through translator) The mass media pay more attention to the length of the beard of a fighter than to the massacres.
KELEMEN: And al-Khatib brushed off concerns about terrorism in his country, saying Bashar al-Assad's regime is more savage than any terrorist.
AL-KHATIB: (Through translator) Stop killing and massacring these people, arresting and torturing its children. Bashar Assad, you have to adopt at least one wise decision in your life for the future of this country.
KELEMEN: The Syrian opposition leader says the world can no longer stand aside and watch the destruction of his country. He's calling for humanitarian corridors to get desperately needed aid to besieged cities. That's something that was discussed today, according to Italy's foreign minister, Giulio Terzi, who also spoke through an interpreter.
GIULIO MARIA TERZI: (Through translator) The suffering of the Syrian people are forcing us to go above and beyond the efforts that have been made to now. We must be able to reach a turning point. Seventy-thousand victims are a huge weight on the conscience of the international community. We can no longer allow this massacre to continue.
KELEMEN: When Secretary Kerry was asked whether the U.S. aid offer was enough, he pointed out that there were 11 nations around the table today, and he said he's confident that the totality of what's on offer could make a difference. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Rome.
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