CAIRO - Egyptian prosecutors and police raided offices of 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups on Thursday - including several funded by the United States - in what rights defenders described as a campaign against them by the military rulers.

The official MENA news agency said the groups had been targeted as part of an investigation into foreign funding of such organizations.

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Rights groups, a driving force behind the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, have become increasingly vocal in criticising the army's heavy-handed tactics in dealing with street unrest and demanding a quicker handover of power to civilians.

"The public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organizations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding case," MENA cited the prosecutor's office as saying. "The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits."

The United States expressed deep concern over the raids and urged Egyptian authorities to immediately halt "harassment" of non-governmental organization staff.

"We are very concerned because this is not appropriate in the current environment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We are looking for this issue to be resolved immediately."

Among groups targeted were the local offices of the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), said a security source and employees at the organizations.

"Security forces who said they were from the public prosecutor are raiding our offices as we speak. They are grabbing all the papers and laptops as well," said one person working at NDI, who gave her name as Rawda.

The security source said employees at the offices were not allowed to leave while the searches continued. It said the prosecutor had confiscated documents and machines as part of the investigation.

A Reuters television reporter who approached the IRI's offices in central Cairo found the doors sealed shut with wax and saw several police vehicles driving away from the area.

Other groups that were raided included US-based Freedom House and local groups set up to defend judicial independence, individual freedoms and democracy, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

"This looks like a campaign against human rights defenders," said prominent Egyptian rights activist Negad al-Borai. He said similar campaigns happened during Mubarak's three-decade rule.

"For this to happen after what we call the 'revolution', I am astonished," added Borai.

Egyptian presidential hopeful and former UN nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei said: "Human rights organizations are the icon of freedom.... Everyone will be watching closely any illegal attempts to distort them. The revolution will prevail."

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