ROME - The United States said Thursday it would for the first time provide direct aid to rebel fighters battling Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and $60 million in extra assistance to the country’s political opposition.

The assistance aims to bolster Assad’s opponents, but hopes the main opposition National Coalition would soon elect a prime minister and government were dashed when it announced that a meeting this weekend had been put off indefinitely. After talks with European and Arab partners and the opposition in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would provide aid to fighters in the form of food and medical assistance.

The move was a significant shift in US policy but fell short of rebel demands for the opposition’s Western backers to supply the rebellion with weapons or non-offensive military equipment like vehicles or body armour. “For more than a year, the United States and our partners have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and to halt his war machine,” Kerry said. “Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase.”

Kerry said the goal was to give the opposition the means to control areas it has seized from the regime, to prove to Assad he can’t “shoot his way out” of the conflict in Syria. But soon after the announcement, the National Coalition disappointed backers by delaying the Saturday meeting in Istanbul without explanation. “The conference has been postponed and no new date has been set. I cannot reveal the reasons at this time and I do not exclude its cancellation,” National Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

Violence continued to rage inside Syria meanwhile, with rebels seizing control of the historic Umayyad Mosque in second city Aleppo after days of fierce clashes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A car bomb also exploded in a regime-held suburb of Homs city, killing a number of people and wounding others, state news agency SANA said.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been uprooted since the conflict broke out in March 2011.

A State Department official said the $60 million (49 million euros) in new aid would be used to help local councils and communities in “liberated” areas, to provide basic goods and services and “fulfil administrative functions including security, sanitation and education services.” The official said the new money was in addition to $50 million in non-lethal support Washington has already provided to help Syrian opposition activists, including communications equipment. That aid was provided through Turkey, while the United States has also contributed some $380 million dollars in humanitarian aid through UN agencies and aid groups.

Asked about congressional approval of the funding, Kerry told journalists he was “very confident for rapid delivery”. Kerry met for about an hour with opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib Thursday, before the 11-nation talks at the 16th-century Villa Madama on a hilltop above Rome. Officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated, as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

A Western diplomat who took part told AFP the opposition had seen the announcement of new US money as a step forward. “Khatib felt an evolution. It maybe wasn’t what he wanted, but it was a useful step,” said the diplomat, noting that it was the first time Washington had named Syria’s Supreme Military Council, the rebel military command, as a “partner”. Pressure has been building for talks to end the conflict with Russia, Assad’s most powerful supporter, this week calling for both sides to sit down for negotiations. In Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, French leader Francois Hollande said foreign powers had the same goal but acknowledged differences over how to reach it.

“We have the same objective - to avoid the disintegration of this country and to avoid allowing terrorists to profit from this chaos. We want political dialogue,” Hollande said after talks in the Kremlin. “There is the question of the manner of how to get there.”