US says Egypt agrees to stop raids on democracy groups

Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the US National Democratic Institute in Cairo on 29 Dec 2011 Computers and documents were seized by Egyptian authorities

Egypt has reassured the US that it will stop raids on the offices of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the US state department says.

Officials said property seized in the raids would be returned to the groups, which include two based in the US.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken to Egypt's military ruler by phone to discuss the issue, they added.

Egypt raided the offices of 17 NGOs in Cairo on Thursday, after expressing concern over foreign funding.

The country's ruling military council has said repeatedly it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country's affairs.

But the US reacted sharply to the move, condemning it as an attack on democratic values and hinting that it could review the $1.3bn (£0.84bn) in annual US military aid to Cairo if such incidents continued.

'Normal operations'

On Friday, Mr Panetta and the US ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, spoke to top Egyptian officials including military ruler Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, the US state department said.

"The ambassador has sought and received Egyptian leadership assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in emailed comments.

"She has also made clear that we expect all international NGOs, including those that receive US government support, be able to return to normal operations as soon as possible in support of the democratic transition underway in Egypt."

David Kramer, the director of the US human rights watchdog Freedom House, told the BBC that while the reassurance was welcome, it was not enough to undo the damage.

Mr Kramer, whose office was among those raided, said some of his seized property had still not been returned.

Thursday's raids were part of a probe by Egypt into allegations of illegal funding from abroad.

Evidence suggested some groups were violating Egyptian laws, including by not having permits, prosecutors were quoted as saying on Thursday.

But analysts said they were part of a broader move by the ruling military council to silence dissent after months of criticism of its human rights record.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) has been running Egypt since a popular uprising ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

But in recent months the military government has found itself the focus of protests, as activists questioned its commitment to democratic reform.

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