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US Appeals for Free Elections in Egypt Following Arrests

The United States is urging Egyptian authorities not to impede participation in Thursday's parliamentary elections. The appeal followed reports that Egyptian police have arrested hundreds of opposition activists, mainly from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, on the eve of the election.

Bush administration officials have voiced general approval for the political opening in Egypt that began in September with the country's first contested presidential election in decades.

But U.S. officials have criticized political violence connected with the ongoing parliamentary voting, largely attributed to ruling-party supporters. And they are now voicing concern about the reported arrests preceding Thursday's third round of elections.

News reports from Cairo say several hundred activists, most of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have been rounded up by police this week. Opposition spokesmen also accuse police and members of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party of confiscating identity and registration cards to prevent people from voting.

At a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said he was not in a position to confirm details of the reported crackdown but said the United States, as a basic principle, supports free and open elections in Egypt.

"We think it's important that all Egyptians have the ability to express their will about Egypt's future direction as well as the future direction of their political system through the ballot box," said Mr. McCormack. "We think that's an important right, and that the Egyptian government has a responsibility to provide an atmosphere for its people in which they can feel as though they are not encumbered, they are not barred from, or under the threat of violence or coercion in exercising that basic political right."

Mr. McCormack said if any of those detained are charged with violating the law, the United States would underscore the importance that they receive due process, and that this process unfolds in an atmosphere of transparency.

Amnesty International, in a statement earlier Wednesday, expressed concern about mass arrests of opposition supporters and criticized the Cairo government for failing to insure that voters are free from violence, arbitrary arrests and intimidation.

Most Egyptian human rights groups have also accused the government of condoning police violence and vote-rigging during the weeks-long electoral process.

Though officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, has fielded candidates running as independents.

In the two rounds of voting thus far, it has increased its presence in parliament five-fold, to 76 seats in the 454-member body.

Another 136 seats are being contested Thursday.

President Mubarak easily won re-election against nine opponents in voting September 7. There were widespread charges of election fraud and voter intimidation.

But it was the first time in Mr. Mubarak's nearly quarter-century in office that a presidential vote had been contested, and the State Department called the election a "historic departure" for the Egyptian people.