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Americans seek refuge at embassy in Cairo

CAIRO -- Three American citizens barred from leaving Egypt have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo amid growing tensions between the two allies over an Egyptian investigation into foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

The White House said yesterday it was disappointed with Egypt's handling of the issue, which U.S. officials have warned could stand in the way of more than $1 billion in badly needed U.S. aid.

The growing spat between the two longtime allies reflects the uncertainty as they redefine their relationship nearly one year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak following an 18-day popular uprising.

Mubarak was a steadfast U.S. ally, scrupulously maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel while seeking to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians -- a clear American interest.

Now, Egypt's council of ruling generals, who took power when Mubarak stood down Feb. 11, often accuse "foreign hands" of promoting protests against their rule.

At the same time, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the new parliament, have suggested that they could seek to renegotiate parts of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, causing alarm in Israel and concern in Washington over the possibility that Egypt will no longer serve as its solid anchor in the Middle East.

Egypt's investigation into foreign-funded organizations burst into view last month when heavily armed security forces raided 17 offices belonging to 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, some U.S.-based. U.S. and UN officials blasted the raids, which Egyptian officials defended as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups' work and finances.

Last week Egypt barred at least six Americans and four Europeans who worked for U.S.-based organizations from leaving the country. They included Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the only Republican in President Barack Obama's cabinet.

Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington that some of the Americans under investigation were in the embassy, although she would not identify them or their affiliations, citing privacy concerns.

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