Exclusive: U.S. still plans to send F-16s to Egypt in coming weeks
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States still plans to go through with the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt in the coming weeks, U.S. defense officials told Reuters on Wednesday, even after the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Mursi.
The disclosure came as Washington treads a careful line, neither welcoming Mursi's removal nor denouncing it as a "coup," saying it needs time to weigh the situation.
A U.S. decision to brand his overthrow a coup would, by U.S. law, require Washington to halt aid to the Egyptian military, which receives the lion's share of the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. assistance to that country.
The jets, which will likely be delivered in August and are built by Lockheed Martin Corp, are part of the annual aid package, a U.S. defense official said.
"There is no current change in the plan to deliver F-16s to the Egyptian military," a second U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Asked about the F-16s, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "It's our view that we should not ... hastily change our aid programs." He directed specific questions about the jets to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon, responding to queries by reporters, later issued a statement echoing President Barack Obama's July 3 comments that he had ordered a review of U.S. assistance to Egypt. Asked whether Obama's review had put the F-16 delivery on hold, one of the U.S. officials told Reuters: "The delivery remains scheduled as planned.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's biggest supplier, declined comment on the issue.
Egypt has been one of the world's largest recipients of U.S. aid since it signed a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
It was the first Arab country to buy F-16s, widely viewed as a symbol of political and security ties with Washington. U.S.-Egyptian co-production of the M1A1 Abrams battle tank has also been a key part of U.S. assistance.
In a sign of how important U.S. aid is to Washington's ties with Egypt, Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood warned last year before taking power that Egypt might review its peace deal with Israel if the United States cut aid.
For fiscal year 2013, which ends in September, the United States has already disbursed $650 million in military aid to Egypt. Another $585 million is pending, the first U.S. official said.
Another eight F-16s are due to be delivered in December, the first U.S. defense official said. The jets are part of a package of 20 F-16s, of which eight have already been delivered.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has spoken by phone with the head of Egypt's armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight times since July 2. The last conversation was on Tuesday.
The Pentagon has offered few details about those talks, which nevertheless show how intensive contacts between the two have been following Mursi's July 3 overthrow.
Still, both sides of Egypt's divide have become fiercely anti-American. Mursi's opponents say the Obama administration supported the Brotherhood in power, while Mursi's supporters believe Washington was behind the plot to unseat him.
To Islamists, Obama's refusal so far to label the military takeover a "coup" has stoked accusations that he is a hypocrite in promoting democracy.
For its part, the White House said on Wednesday it would take time to determine whether Mursi's ouster was a coup. It has previously pointed out that millions of Egyptians had wanted a change in government.
"We are evaluating how the authorities are responding to and handling the current situation," Carney said.
The Obama administration tried to show that it is not taking sides in Egypt. It has also been at pains to explain why it has not called for the restoration of Mursi, or even to say whether or not he should be allowed to take part in any new elections that may be held.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she did not know where Mursi was being held but voiced concern about his welfare.
"The United States has conveyed strongly and clearly to the Egyptian military that the treatment of anyone ... who was arbitrarily arrested, whether it's President Mursi or other members of the Muslim Brotherhood ... is important to the United States," Psaki told reporters.