Demonstrators demanding handover of power in Cairo 390 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
WASHINGTON - Several American citizens have taken refuge in the US Embassy in Cairo amid a sharpening dispute between Washington and Egypt's military-led authorities over US-funded pro-democracy groups in the country, the State Department said on Monday.
"We can confirm that a handful of US citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Kate Starr said.
The unusual step of offering US citizens diplomatic refuge follows Cairo's crackdown on non-governmental organizations, including several funded by the US government, which saw travel bans imposed on six American staffers including a son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Egyptian police first raided the groups in late December as part of an investigation into foreign funding of 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups, part of what civil society groups say has been a broader crackdown on critics of the army's heavy-handed tactics in dealing with street unrest.
Washington has strongly criticized the Egyptian move, which has cast a pall over US-Egypt relations as the most populous Arab nation reaches a critical stage in its uncertain transition away from authoritarian rule.
Leading US lawmakers have also voiced outrage over the incident, and American officials have repeatedly warned that Washington may have to take a fresh look at US aid to Egypt's military, which now runs about $1.3 billion per year.
The six US citizens hit with travel bans work with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute. Both receive US public funding and are loosely affiliated with the two major political parties in Washington.
The State Department did not provide details on the Americans sheltering in the embassy, although officials at the NDI said none of their staff had been relocated.
US officials said an Egyptian military delegation was expected in Washington this week for regular talks which are nevertheless expected to focus in large part on the impasse over the NGOs.
US President Barack Obama spoke with the head of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, on Jan. 20 and stressed the importance of the NGOs, as well as Egypt's request for $3.2 billion in support from the International Monetary Fund.
In a weekend call to Tantawi, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the Egyptians to take steps to lift the travel ban on Americans wishing to leave the country, and expressed concern over restrictions placed on NGOs, the Pentagon said.
The Obama administration is finalizing its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which will be presented on Feb. 13 and is expected to include continued assistance for Egypt's military, albeit subject to new conditions imposed by US lawmakers.
Those include evidence that Egyptian military authorities are committed to holding free and fair elections and implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.