U.S. activists, NGO workers leave Egypt, ending deepest row between Washington, Cairo

Some of the fourteen Egyptian activists who were accused of working for unlicensed non-NGOs and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo. (Reuters)

A plane carrying American pro-democracy campaigners and other activists left Egypt on Thursday after a travel ban was lifted, an airport official said, a move that is likely to defuse the deepest row between Washington and Cairo in decades.

“They have left,” the airport official told Reuters, without giving further details. A U.S. military plane had been sent to Egypt to take them, airport officials had said earlier.

Seventeen foreign democracy activists including nine Americans on trial in Egypt flew out of Cairo airport on Thursday, AFP reported citing airport sources, who added that they took off on board a private aircraft.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was pleased the U.S. staffers had been permitted to depart, but underscored that it remained concerned about Egypt’s investigation into civil society groups.

“We will continue to try to work through these issues with the Egyptian government,” Nuland told a news briefing.

Along with the Americans, the foreign defendants on trial on charges of receiving illicit foreign funds are Norwegian, Serbian, German, Palestinian and Jordanian.

The other foreign groups involved in the trial are the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Centre for Journalists -- all American -- and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

A U.S. pro-democracy group on Thursday welcomed Egypt’s decision to lift travel bans imposed on its staff, but said it remained concerned over Egypt’s investigation of civil society groups and hopeful that all charges would be dropped.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) said in a statement it remained very concerned about the situation “and the impact it will have on Egypt's ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought.”

Egyptian court officials earlier said the U.S. paid bail for the Americans charged in the case of fomenting unrest in the country, according to The Associated Press.

A convoy of white vans carrying the sign of U.S. Embassy arrived at Cairo airport earlier Thursday carrying the seven Americans, who include the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. They had sought refuge at the U.S. embassy, fearing arrest.

The case has infuriated Washington, which threatened to cut off $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt.

The Americans worked at non-profit groups promoting democracy in Egypt and were charged with stoking anti-government unrest with illegal foreign funding.

The trial, which came after raids on the groups’ offices in December, led to a crisis in relations between Egypt and Washington, a close ally of the strategic nation. The case sparked intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between the two countries to find a way out.

Egypt’s military, in power since an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, appeared to have underestimated the fallout from the crackdown on the civil society groups.

The raids came amid growing unrest against the generals, as the authorities suggested that the regime’s opponents were being directed by foreigners, playing on abundant suspicion in the country of foreign plots, particularly U.S. and Israeli.

Fayza Abul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to have sparked the probe into the groups, told investigating judges that the NGOs were part of an American conspiracy to spread chaos in Egypt.

On Thursday, she insisted that the trial would go on once a new judicial panel has been appointed.

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