WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to lift a travel ban on Americans working for pro-democracy groups, the Pentagon said Monday.
Meanwhile, State Department officials told AFP that a "handful of US citizens" have taken shelter at the US embassy in Cairo while awaiting Egypt’s permission to depart the country.
In a weekend telephone call to Tantawi, Panetta asked Tantawi to "take steps to lift the travel ban on American citizens wishing to leave Egypt," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
Panetta also "expressed concern over restrictions placed on NGOs operating in Egypt," Little added.
The Egyptian authorities have banned a number of US citizens working for US-funded pro-democracy non-government organizations, including the International Republican Institute, from leaving Egypt.
The ban has further strained US-Egyptian ties after Cairo prosecutors last month stormed the offices of the IRI, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House as part of a probe into allegations of illegal funding from abroad.
The State Department, which said four or five have been banned from leaving, has urged the Egyptian authorities to lift the restriction immediately.
But there was no sign the Egyptians were moving to lift the restrictions as US officials said a number of US staff from the NGOs took shelter in the US embassy in Cairo.
"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," a US State Department official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking Egyptian military delegation has arrived for talks with officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress, a US defense department official said on condition of anonymity.
A State Department official told AFP: "This trip was planned long before this whole flare-up with the NGOs. Obviously, I’m sure that (the NGO issue) will come up in meetings."
But he added: "This is more routine than a specifically targeted trip."