CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's airport authorities have been told that a travel ban on U.S. pro-democracy activists has been lifted, airport sources said on Thursday, opening the way to defuse a row that U.S. officials have linked to $1.3 billion of annual U.S. military aid.
A senior judge and other judicial sources said on Wednesday that Egypt had decided to lift the ban, which barred the departure of U.S. citizens working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that Egypt says received foreign funds illegally.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday she had no confirmation that the ban was lifted but said she expected the NGO row to be resolved "in the very near future".
U.S. officials have said $1.3 billion in annual military aid has been put at risk by the case. Washington's ties with Cairo have been a cornerstone of its Middle East policy since 1979, when Egypt became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
"Instructions have arrived to lift the travel ban on the accused Americans in the case of foreign financing to allow them to leave should they turn up to travel," one of the sources at Cairo international airport said, adding they could leave at any time and on any flight.
Airport sources had said late on Wednesday that a U.S. military plane had arrived from Cyprus to take the Americans out. It was not immediately clear when any of the Americans would leave or if they would travel on commercial flights.
Sixteen of the 43 people facing charges are Americans. Seven of the Americans are in Egypt and some of those have sought refuge in the U.S. embassy - which had no comment on the case.
Judge Abdel Moez Ibrahim, head of the Cairo Appeals Court who appoints judges to the case, confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday that a decision had been taken to lift the travel ban.
Asked for the nationalities of those affected by the decision, he said: "All of them are Americans."
U.S. officials have said $1.3 billion in annual military aid has been put at risk by the case.
"We believe we will resolve this issue concerning our NGOs in the very near future. That is my best assessment sitting here today," Clinton told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday. But she said she had no confirmation that the travel ban had been lifted.
The NGO workers include Egyptians, Serbs, Norwegians and Germans. They have been accused of receiving foreign funds without the approval of the Egyptian authorities.
The workers are also alleged to have carried out political activities unrelated to their work and accused of failing to obtain necessary operating licences.
The NGOs say they have long tried to register in Egypt and describe the crackdown as part of a wave of repression against civil society by the generals who took power after President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow last year.
Two of the groups involved, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), are loosely affiliated with the major U.S. political parties and one of the accused, IRI Egypt Director Sam LaHood, is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The first session of the court took place on Sunday and was adjourned to April 26. That adjournment had raised hopes among activists' supporters that the case could be dropped to spare further damage to U.S.-Egyptian ties.
A day before the decision to lift the travel ban, the judge who had handled the trial resigned without giving any reasons.
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Tim Pearce