WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday expressed continued concern over Egypt's crackdown on pro-democracy groups following an Egyptian court order permitting the departure of American nongovernmental organization staffers who had been under a travel ban.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But Nuland indicated that the release did not resolve broader U.S. concerns over Egypt's transition to democracy which have sparked questions over the future of the some $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to the country.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said.
"We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
The group of 15 people included eight Americans, three Serbians, two Germans, a Norwegian and a Palestinian, Egypt's official news agency said. U.S. officials had previously said there were only seven Americans involved still in Egypt.
Egyptian authorities had accused the nongovernmental organization campaigners, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of working for groups receiving illegal foreign funding and had prevented them from leaving the country.
U.S. officials had warned that the case jeopardized U.S. military assistance to Egypt, which underpinned Washington's ties to Cairo during the 30-year rule of former President Hosni Mubarak and helps guarantee Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Nuland emphasized that any U.S. decision to maintain aid would hinge on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifying that Egypt is meeting a variety of democratic benchmarks.
"I am not going to speak to how the decisions will be made, when the time comes," Nuland said.
"We continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a manner that allows all NGOs, our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs and Egyptian NGOs to be registered. We think that's part and parcel of the democratic transition," she said.
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the receding crisis over the NGOS should allow Egypt's new leadership to reprioritize.
"Hopefully today's action reflects a new willingness to respect Egyptian civil society and attention can be refocused on Egypt's precarious economy," Kerry said in a statement.
"Egyptians cannot afford to win a revolution but lose this moment of opportunity."
Nuland confirmed that the NGOs, which include the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both of which receive U.S. government funding, had posted bail to secure the release of their employees.
The Egyptian court had set bail of 2 million Egyptian pounds ($330,000) each.
She also said that the charges against the NGO staffers had not been dropped, but that it would be up to each individual to decide whether to return to Egypt for further legal proceedings.
Sixteen of the 43 people charged in Egypt's broader probe of nongovernmental organizations are Americans. Some of the U.S. activists had sought refuge in the U.S. embassy, which had no comment on the case.
The IRI, which employs Sam LaHood as its Egypt director, welcomed his release and the release of other staffers. But it said it remained concerned over Egypt's investigation of civil society groups and hopeful that all charges would be dropped.
Republican Senator Lyndsey Graham, who recently visited Cairo in part to discuss the NGO case, said Egypt still needed to demonstrate that it had turned a political page.
"It's not what you say in politics, it's what you do," Graham said on the Senate floor. "Maybe we have learned our lesson, you can't have partnership without basic principles."
Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Will Dunham and Paul Simao