WASHINGTON Several American citizens have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo amid a sharpening dispute between Washington and Egypt over U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups in the country, the State Department said on Monday.
The unusual step of offering ordinary U.S. citizens diplomatic refuge follows a crackdown by Egypt's military-led authorities on non-governmental organizations which has thrown a question mark over the future of U.S. aid to Egypt's military, now running at about $1.3 billion per year.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a "handful" of U.S. NGO staff had sought and been granted permission to remain on embassy grounds after they were barred from leaving the country.
"They're in the embassy because they feel that they are more comfortable there in this circumstance," Nuland told reporters.
Egyptian police 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. Authorities banned six American staffers from leaving the country.
Washington has strongly criticized the move, which has cast a pall over U.S.-Egyptian relations as the most populous Arab nation reaches a critical stage in its uncertain transition away from authoritarian rule.
"We have made clear our concerns about this issue and our disappointment that these several citizens are not being allowed to depart Egypt," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday.
Leading U.S. lawmakers have also voiced outrage over the incident, and American officials have repeatedly warned that Washington may have to take a fresh look at U.S. aid to Egypt's military, which depends on the State Department certifying that the government is making genuine moves toward democracy.
The six U.S. citizens hit with travel bans work with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute. Both receive U.S. public funding and are loosely affiliated with the two major U.S. political parties.
Among those prevented from leaving is the Republican group's Egypt country director Sam LaHood, who is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The State Department did not provide details on the Americans sheltering in the embassy, although officials at the National Democratic Institute said none of their staff had been relocated. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Nuland described the refuge offer as "a unique situation" and dismissed suggestions that the aim was to shield the U.S. citizens from potential arrest.
"There is no expectation that any of these individuals are seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process," Nuland said.
"We do not feel that they are in physical danger at the moment. That is a different matter than whether they are being persecuted in the Egyptian judicial system," Nuland added.
An Egyptian military delegation is expected in Washington this week for regular talks that are expected to focus on the impasse over the NGOs, U.S. officials said.
Nuland, while stressing that the visit had been planned before the NGO dispute erupted, said the Egyptians could expect firm words during their U.S. meetings.
"We have concerns about the fact that we have not been able to resolve this situation. That is the message that we are giving the Egyptian government in the strongest terms," she said.
The delegation, made up of four major generals, was expected in Washington on Tuesday, diplomatic sources said.
President Barack Obama spoke with the head of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, on January 20. He stressed the importance of the NGOs and discussed Egypt's request for $3.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund.
In a weekend call to Tantawi, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the Egyptians to lift the travel ban 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 February 13 and is expected to include continued assistance for Egypt's military, albeit subject to new conditions imposed by U.S. lawmakers.
Those include evidence that Egyptian military authorities are committed to holding free and fair elections and protecting freedom of expression, association, and religion.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Laura MacInnis; editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham)