US pledges $74 million in 'non-lethal' help for Syria opposition

ROME (AFP) - The United States on Thursday pledged US$60 million (S$74 million) in "non-lethal" aid to rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime after talks with the opposition in Rome.

US media including The New York Times and Washington Post have reported that the "non-lethal" aid could include equipment such as vehicles, communications gear and night-vision goggles. The NYT also reported that a US mission training rebels at a base in the region was already under way.

In a grim reminder of the violence that has racked the country for two years, the announcement of aid came at the same time as news that a car bomb went off in a suburb of the flashpoint city of Homs, killing several people.

"The US will be providing an additional US$60 million in non-lethal assistance to support the efforts of the Syrian opposition coalition over the coming months," new US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

"We will be sending medical supplies and food to the (rebel) Supreme Military Council, so there will be direct assistance," he said, adding: "All Syrians... must know that they can have a future." The announcement came after talks in Rome gathering the 11-nation Friends of Syria with the opposition at the 16th-century Villa Madama on a hilltop above Rome.

Kerry earlier met for about an hour with opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

The top US diplomat had already said the opposition needs "more help" in the fight against Assad and that Washington wants to speed up the crisis-hit country's political transition.

The Rome talks come two days before an important meeting of the main opposition National Coalition on Saturday in Istanbul, where the umbrella group is to elect a prime minister and government to run parts of Syria seized from Assad's control.

On the ground in Syria, the state news agency SANA said "terrorists" set off a car bomb on Thursday in the regime-controlled Akrama Jadideh suburb of Homs.

"Preliminary information indicates that there are dead and wounded," the agency reported.

Rebels also seized control of the Umayyad Mosque in the second city of Aleppo after days of fierce clashes that damaged the historic building, a watchdog reported.

Regime troops were forced to withdraw at dawn, taking up positions in buildings around the landmark structure, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.