By CAROL E. LEE And JULIAN E. BARNESA group of American citizens have sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in the midst of an Egyptian government crackdown against U.S. democracy and rights organizations.
U.S. officials have initiated a new round of diplomacy, including a call by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the head of the Egypt's military, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to urge the lifting of travel restrictions.
Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is among a group of citizens working in Egypt who have been told they can't leave the country. White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed that a handful of U.S. citizens were staying at the embassy, but didn't say how many or whether they included Mr. LaHood.
"We're not aware that they're in any danger," he said. "These are citizens who have been told they cannot leave Egypt."
The U.S. Embassy invited "a handful" of Americans to stay at the embassy, the State Department said.
"This was a unique situation," said Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman. "The decision was made by the mission to allow them to stay."
Ms. Nuland disputed reports that the group was seeking to avoid the possibility of arrest by Egyptians for their pro-democracy activities.
"There is no expectation any of these individuals are seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process," she said, adding that U.S. groups in fact encourage adherence to legal processes in countries in which they work.
Mr. LaHood and a group of Americans were prevented from leaving Cairo this month in the midst of an investigation by the government into the operation of foreign nongovernmental groups. Mr. LaHood works for the International Republican Institute.
As part of the U.S. response, Mr. Panetta, the Defense Secretary, urged Egyptian Field Marshal Tantawi in a phone call to lift the ban on travel by American citizens who wish to leave the country, George Little, the Pentagon press secretary said Monday.
Mr. Little said Mr. Panetta expressed concern over the restrictions placed on nonprofit organizations operating in Egypt. The call, placed over the weekend, was at least the second Mr. Panetta has placed to Field Marshal Tantawi to express concern over the Egyptian government's pressure on the pro-democracy organizations. The last such call was Dec. 30.
Midlevel U.S. officials also planned to press their concerns with a group of senior Egyptian generals who landed in Washington on Sunday, to try to mend one of the most serious rifts in years with the U.S.
U.S. officials have been trying to remain hopeful about changes in Egypt since the government of former President Hosni Mubarak fell last year. "There are challenges that remain, but it's important to remember that Egypt has come a long way," Mr. Carney, the White House spokesman, said Monday.
The frustration has become apparent as the military holds on to power and cracks down on dissent, jeopardizing $1.3 billion a year in U.S. assistance.