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US stepping up diplomacy on Syria

The US is attempting to ramp up diplomatic efforts against Syrian president Bashar Assad's regime on a trip to North Africa this week, as some countries begin to explore the possibility of arming Syria's rebels.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in London on Wednesday for a conference on Somalia, but US officials will be using the international gathering to lay the groundwork for a major conference on Syria's future taking place later this week in Tunisia.

The trip comes as the Obama administration is opening the door slightly to international military assistance for Syria's armed opposition.

In co-ordinated messages, the White House and State Department said on Tuesday that 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.

"We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarisation of Syria because that could take the country down a dangerous path," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "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 had previously said flatly that more weapons were not the answer to the Syrian situation. There had been no mention of "additional measures", despite daily reports from Syrian activists of dozens of deaths from government attacks.

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

"From our perspective, we don't believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarisation of Syria," she said. "What we don't want to see is the spiral of violence increase. That said, if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures."

Mrs Clinton's trip to Europe and North Africa is taking place amid increased international discussion about adding a military component to the package of humanitarian and political aid to the opposition that will be the focus in Tunisia.

More than 70 countries have been invited to Friday's "Friends of Syria" meeting, which follows the failure of the UN Security Council to endorse an Arab plan that would have seen Assad removed from power.

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