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Egypt's VP offers opposition more concessions

CAIRO - Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time yesterday and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks ago and the eventual lifting of hated emergency laws.

Two of the groups that attended the meeting said it was only a first step in a dialogue that has yet to meet their central demand - the immediate ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

"People still want the president to step down," said Mostafa al-Naggar, a protest organizer and supporter of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and one of the country's leading democracy advocates.

"The protest continues because there are no guarantees and not all demands have been met," he added. "We did not sign on to the statement. This is a beginning of a dialogue."

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, made a similar statement after its representatives attended the meeting.

Vice President Omar Suleiman offered to set up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.

The offer included a pledge not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies. The government agreed not to hamper freedom of press and not to interfere with text messaging and Internet service.

The offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat, when security permits, would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mubarak when he took office in 1981. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry hailed the talks with opposition groups and the promise to remove the emergency law as "frankly quite extraordinary." Kerry called on Mubarak to lay out a timetable for transition and new elections. Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos. The United States shifted signals Saturday and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.

Yesterday's meeting drew the broadest representation of Egypt's fragmented opposition to sit with the new vice president since the protests began on Jan. 25.

The new offer of concessions followed a series of others that would have been unimaginable just a month ago. All appear geared toward placating the protesters and relieving international pressure without giving in to the one demand that unites all the opposition - Mubarak's immediate departure.

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