Egypt 'lifts' travel ban on US NGO workers

Workers from the National Democratic Institute NGO wait outside as officials raid their office, 29 December 2011 Workers from the National Democratic Institute NGO wait as officials raid their office in December

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Egypt has lifted a travel ban on seven US democracy activists accused of trying to foment unrest in the country, judicial officials in Cairo have said.

They are among 16 Americans who have been detained - the other nine have already left the country.

Forty-three activists in total face charges such as inciting protests against the nation's military rulers.

The case has caused a major rift between the two countries and put at risk $1.3bn (£813m) in US aid to Egypt.

Defence lawyers said the Americans would need to post bail of 2m Egyptian Pounds ($300,000) and sign pledges to attend the next court hearing.

Speaking on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said reports that the travel ban had been lifted were encouraging.

She had said earlier that she expected the situation to be resolved in the "very near future".

Already the judges in the case resigned in "embarrassment" on Tuesday without giving further details of what exactly this would mean.

Rising tensions

A trial opened on Sunday against the accused, although none of the Americans was in court. The case was adjourned until late April.

It is not clear whether charges will now be dropped against the US citizens.

Tensions between Egypt and the US rose after police in Cairo raided the offices of 17 NGOs in December and confiscated documents and computers.

Last month 43 individuals from five foreign groups were charged with obtaining international funds illegally and failing to register their organisations with the government.

Four of the groups are American - they include the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute, loosely affiliated with the US Republican and Democratic parties. The remaining one is German.

The son of US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood is among those who have been facing criminal charges.

Sam LaHood heads the Egyptian office of the IRI and recently sought refuge in the US embassy in Cairo with several other Americans.

Other defendants in the case are Egyptian, Palestinian, Norwegian, Serbian and German.

As the row between Cairo and Washington deepened, US law-makers threatened to withdraw foreign aid - which is mostly given as military assistance.

The investigation was seen as an effort by Egypt's ruling generals to silence their detractors, and undermine groups that have criticised their handling of the transition to democracy since they took power last year.

Egyptian officials said that the NGO inquiry was a judicial not a political matter.

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