|Some US citizens staying at US embassy while waiting to leave country, says Egypt department spokesperson [EPA]
A number of Americans have taken refuge in the embassy in Cairo after a crackdown on US-funded non-governmental organisations, the state department said on Monday.
"We can confirm that a handful of US citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt," Kate Starr, a state department spokesperson, said.
The rare move by the embassy to offer its citizens diplomatic refuge follows a crackdown by Egypt's military-led government on NGOs, including several funded by the US government, which saw travel bans imposed on six American staffers including a son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Egyptian police first raided the groups in late December as part of an investigation into foreign funding of 17 NGOs, part of what civil society groups say has been a broader crackdown on critics of the army's heavy-handed tactics in dealing with continued protests against military rule.
Washington has strongly criticised the move, which has cast a pall over US-Egyptian relations as the most populous Arab nation reaches a critical stage in its uncertain transition away from autocratic rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.
"We have made clear our concerns about this issue and our disappointment that these several citizens are not being allowed to depart Egypt," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday.
Leading US lawmakers have also voiced outrage over the incident, and American officials have repeatedly warned that Washington may have reconsider US aid to Egypt's military.
The six US citizens hit with travel bans work with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute. Both receive US public funding and are affiliated with the two major political parties in the US.
The state department did not provide details on the Americans sheltering in the embassy, although officials at the NDI said none of their staff had been relocated.
Victoria Nuland, another state department spokesperson, described the refuge offer as "a unique situation" and said it did not reflect concerns for the Americans' physical safety.
"There is no expectation that any of these individuals are seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process," Nuland added.
"They approached the embassy staff and the decision was made to invite them as guests."