CAIRO — Three American democracy advocates barred by Egyptian authorities from leaving the country have sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, officials said Monday, as tensions between the two allied nations sharply escalated over a probe into foreign-funded organizations.
The unusual step comes amid a row over an Egyptian crackdown on U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy and human rights that could jeopardize more than $1 billion of crucial U.S. aid to Egypt, one of its biggest recipients.
The investigation is closely intertwined with Egypt's political turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's fall nearly a year ago. The generals who took power have accused "foreign hands" of being behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving foreign funds in a plot to destabilize the country.
The White House said it has discussed the situation with Egypt's military authorities and U.S. officials were working to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. But a spokesman was careful to praise Egypt for taking important steps toward transitioning to democracy since Mubarak was ousted.
"We've made clear our concerns about this issue and our disappointment that these several citizens are not being allowed to depart Egypt," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Egyptian authorities are preventing at least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing a probe opened last month when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 10 international organizations. Egyptian officials have defended the raid as part of legitimate investigation into the groups' work and funding.
But the State Department's top human rights official, Michael Posner, told reporters during a visit to Cairo last week that such moves could jeopardize U.S. aid, saying "obviously, any action that creates tension between our governments makes the whole package more difficult."
Those facing the travel ban include Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but officials would not say whether he is at the embassy. The younger LaHood, who heads the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute, referred queries to a spokeswoman in Washington who did not return calls seeking comment.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Kate Starr confirmed the embassy was housing civilians.
"A handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt," she said Monday in Washington.
Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said three Americans are at the embassy, adding that the move was not because the U.S. feared their imminent arrest.
A former IRI official quoted in The Washington Post Sunday, however, said his colleagues had indicated that they would only move to the embassy if they feared they'd be arrested soon.
U.S. officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups could hinder aid to Egypt, which would be a major blow to the country as it struggles with economic woes and continued turmoil in the wake of the 18-day popular uprising that led to Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster. Egypt's military has been locked in a confrontation for months with protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians.
The Egyptian army itself receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington. The December raids brought sharp U.S. criticism, and last week President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Egyptian military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi about the issue.
Recent U.S. legislation could block annual aid to Egypt unless it takes certain steps. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, holding free and fair elections and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law."
The U.S. is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt an average of $2 billion in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Sam LaHood of IRI said last week that three other employees of his organization were on the no-fly list, two American and one European.
From the National Democratic Institute, which was also raided in December, three Americans and three Serb employees are on the list, the group's Egypt director, Lisa Hughes, said last week.
Hughes said in a text message Monday that none of NDI's employees are residing at the U.S. Embassy.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman did not respond Monday to requests for comment.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.