US Citizens Seek Refuge in Cairo Embassy as Tensions Rise

Posted January 30th, 2012 at 5:20 pm (UTC-5)
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The White House says it is disappointed by Egypt's move to bar several American citizens from leaving the country. Some of them have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo as tensions escalate over a government probe into foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

U.S. officials said Monday Washington has discussed the situation with Egyptian military authorities and has made its concerns clear. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters officials are working to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

The decision to give the individuals shelter follows Cairo's crackdown on non-governmental organizations – including several funded by the U.S. government – with travel bans imposed on at least six American and four European staff members.

Among those barred is Sam LaHood of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute. He is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. It remains unclear whether LaHood is at the embassy, but a former IRI official quoted in The Washington Post Sunday said his colleagues would only seek diplomatic protection if they feared imminent arrest.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials do not believe any of the Americans currently faces physical threats in Egypt, and none has been charged with a crime. She made clear the embassy's decision to invite the individuals to stay within the diplomatic compound is in no way meant to circumvent Egyptian justice.

U.S. officials said an Egyptian military delegation is due in Washington this week for regular talks expected to focus on the impasse over the non-governmental organizations. The United States has recently threatened to withhold its $1.3 billion annual aid to the Egyptian military if it fails to take steps toward democracy, including respecting such NGOs.

Egypt's ruling military council has been locked in confrontation for months with pro-democracy protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians.

A civilian body that advises the army said Monday Egypt's generals are considering ways to speed up the transition to civilian rule, including moving up the date for presidential elections earlier than a self-imposed June deadline.

However, activists say the new proposals could inflame tensions because they squeeze the already short timeframe for drafting a new constitution, and they ignore their demands for the generals to step down immediately.

The military is consulting the same civilian advisory council the ruling generals created in December. The group met only intermittently and broke up after a short time to protest the military crackdown on demonstrators calling for its ouster. The group's remaining members are to report back to the military council on Wednesday.