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US-Egypt tension eases but aid still in question

By AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States on Thursday signaled an easing in tensions with Egypt after Cairo allowed US democracy activists to leave the country, but said the question over whether to proceed with $1.5 billion in US aid was pending.

"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now lifted the travel ban on our NGO (non-governmental organization) employees," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

"The US government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure, and they have left the country. They are currently en route home," Nuland said.

She confirmed reports from Cairo that American and other activists from Serbia, Germany, Norway and Palestinian lands had left Egypt on the same plane after the country's interim military rulers lifted the travel ban on Wednesday.

But Nuland said: "The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs."

The Americans and other foreigners -- whose number was not given by Washington -- are among 43 NGO workers who still face prosecution in Egypt on charges of receiving illicit foreign funding and operating without licenses.

"We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process. And we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues," said Nuland.

"The larger underlying issue of the role that NGOs play in Egypt's transitioning democracy is still an issue of concern to us," she said.

"At some point in the spring under US legislation, the secretary is going to have to make some certification decisions with regard to the continuing positive development of Egyptian democracy," she said.

The legislation provides for $1.5 billion in military aid in 2012, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify first that Egypt's current military leaders are backing the transition to civilian government.

Egypt has received tens of billions of dollars in US military and other aid since it became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

"I'm not going to speak to how the decisions will be made when the time comes," Nuland said when asked whether a lifting of the travel ban was enough to have Clinton give the green light for the aid.

"Simply to say that we continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a manner that allows all NGOs -- our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs and Egyptian NGOs -- to be registered," Nuland added.

When asked whether the Americans would return to face the charges, she replied "that'll be an issue that each one of them will have to make their own decision about."

Nuland said the NGOs posted bail on behalf of their employees to allow them to leave Egypt.

The Americans include Sam LaHood, the son of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood and head of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Egypt. He and several other US citizens had taken refuge inside their Cairo embassy.

The other foreign groups involved in the trial are the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Centre for Journalists -- all American -- and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

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