Detained Americans leave Egypt after bail paid
Egyptian protesters chant anti-military ruling slogans during a trial of employees of pro-democracy groups charged with using foreign funds to foment unrest in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 26, 2012. / AP Photo/Khalil Hamra
Updated at 3:12 p.m. ET
(CBS/AP) CAIRO - The seven remaining American pro-democracy workers detained by Egypt left Thursday as U.S. and Egyptian authorities negotiated the end to a court-imposed travel ban. Their departure appeared to at least partially defuse tensions which have brought bilateral relations to a new low and threatened the $1.3 billion in annual military aid given by the U.S. government to Egypt for the past three decades.
With the seven Americans safely on their way home, Washington indicated that its anger over the affair has not abated.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed relief that the Americans were free, but she pointedly noted that no decision has been made about U.S. aid to Egypt and that the court case against the pro-democracy groups is not over. Nuland said a plane carrying the Americans was flying to an undisclosed location in Europe.
The 16 Americans facing charges are not expected to return to Egypt, but their trial has not been called off. After the first session Sunday, it was adjourned until April, and that ruling still stands.
At close to 5:30 p.m. in the Egyptian capital, the Americans and eight other foreign democracy workers pulled up to the VIP Departure Terminal at Cairo International Airport in a convoy of vans with tinted windows. Embassy and diplomatic security personnel were in attendance. Egyptian plainclothes officers from airport security and military intelligence prevented journalists from filming with cameras but allowed press and onlookers to record the moment on their mobile phones.
After several months of murky and politically charged negotiations, things moved quickly. The foreign non-governmental-organization workers were soon ushered inside the terminal where they proceeded to go through security screening. None of the workers were willing to talk with the few journalists gathered around the entrance to the terminal.
One of the seven Americans flying out of Egypt was Sam Lahood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. He was the head of the International Republican Institute office in Cairo, a well established pro-democracy group.
The IRI called their release "a positive development" and said it was "hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed." The IRI statement also expressed concern about the future of efforts toward establishing democracy in Egypt in the wake of the affair.
Ray Lahood welcomed the development. "I'm pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son's arrival in the U.S.," he said in a statement. "I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time."
In Washington, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters he was "obviously very pleased" at the news of the Americans' departure. "There's a lot more to say about it, but our ambassador in Cairo, Miss Anne Patterson, did a fantastic job. All of our Americans are now on the way out."
It's an abrupt -- and awkward -- about-face for Egypt's ruling military junta that has governed the country since former President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power just more than a year ago. For months, and through repeated public statements and a constant barrage of state-run media programming, the government has described the 43 total workers as part of a foreign conspiracy, hidden hand and third party hell-bent on destroying the country through the funding of demonstrations and strikes.
Domestically, the government is already starting to feel the heat from lifting the travel ban. The prosecutor's office and several judges publicly feuded last night on multiple Egyptian television networks; no one seems to want to take personal responsibility for letting them go.
Egyptian employees of the accused organizations remain in the country. Speaking to the press during Sunday's court session, National Democratic Institute Regional Director Les Campbell stated that the group will continue to cooperate with the investigation but that the organization remains "concerned about safety, security of all of our employees, not just Americans -- we have Egyptian employees, other nationalities -- we remain concerned about those people."
Egypt and the United States have been close allies since the late 1970s, soon after the Egyptians abandoned decades of partnership with the Soviet Union and signed a peace treaty with Israel, the first Arab nation to do so. Informally, U.S. aid to Egypt is contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel.
The crackdown began in late December, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. Workers, including 16 Americans, were then charged with using illegal funds and promoting protests against the ruling Egyptian military.
The groups hotly denied the charges. They insisted their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register had been stalled by the Egyptian government.
The German government said two of its citizens, working for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, were on the plane. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed relief that they were freed but hoped that the case against them would be closed, so that their group "can resume its valuable work in Egypt without any hindrances."
CBS News' Alex Ortiz contributed to this report from Cairo.
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