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U.S. drops opposition to military aid for Syrian rebels

The Obama administration opened the door slightly Tuesday to international military assistance for Syria's rebels, with officials saying new tactics may have to be explored if President Bashar Assad continues to defy pressure to halt a brutal crackdown on dissenters.

In coordinated messages, the White House and State Department said they still hope for a political solution. But faced with the daily onslaught by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, officials dropped the administration's previous strident opposition to arming anti-regime forces. It remained unclear, though, what, if any, role the United States might play in providing such aid.

"We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria because that could take the country down a dangerous path," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "But we don't rule out additional measures if the international community should wait too long and not take the kind of action that needs to be taken."

The administration has previously said flatly that more weapons are not the answer to the Syrian situation. There had been no mention of "additional measures."

At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used nearly identical language to describe the administration's evolving position.

Neither Carney nor Nuland would elaborate on what "additional measures" might be taken but there have been growing calls, including from some in Congress, for the international community to arm the rebels.

Most suggestions to that effect have foreseen Arab nations such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- and not the West -- possibly providing military assistance.

Other officials said discussions are now under way about adding a military component to a package of humanitarian and political aid to the opposition that's to be discussed at a major international conference on Syria this week in Tunisia.

The backdrop to the discussions is the increasing fear that Syria could descend into an all-out civil war.

Meanwhile, food and water are running dangerously low in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, with frantic cries for help from residents amid government shelling that pounded rebel strongholds and killed at least 30 people Tuesday.

Shells reportedly rained down on rebellious districts at a rate of 10 per minute at one point, and the Red Cross called for a daily two-hour cease-fire so that it can deliver emergency aid to the wounded and sick.

"If they don't die in the shelling, they will die of hunger," activist and resident Omar Shaker told the Associated Press after hours of intense shelling concentrated on the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr that the opposition has extolled as a symbol of their uprising.

Another 33 people were killed in northern Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya region when government forces raided a town in pursuit of regime opponents, raising Tuesday's overall death toll to 63, activists said.

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