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Embassy shields 3 in Egypt

Three American citizens barred from leaving Egypt have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo amid growing tensions between the two allies over an Egyptian investigation into foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

The White House said Monday it was disappointed with Egypt's handing of the issue, which U.S. officials have warned could stand in the way of more than $1 billion in badly needed U.S. aid.

The growing spat between the two longtime allies reflects the uncertainty as they redefine their relationship nearly one year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak following an 18-day popular uprising.

Mubarak was a steadfast U.S. ally, scrupulously maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and while seeking to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.

Now, Egypt's council of ruling generals, who took power when Mubarak stood down last Feb. 11, often accuse "foreign hands" of promoting protests against their rule.

Egypt's investigation into foreign-funded organizations burst into view last month when heavily armed security forces raided 17 offices belonging to 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, some U.S.-based. Egyptian officials defended the raids as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups' work and finances.

Last week, Egypt barred at least six Americans and four Europeans who worked for U.S.-based organizations from leaving the country. They included Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that some of the Americans under investigation were in the embassy, although she would not identify them or their affiliations, citing privacy concerns.

"We can confirm that a handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay on the embassy compound in Cairo while awaiting permission to depart Egypt," she said.

Nuland added that those seeking refuge in the embassy were not "seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process," noting they had been interrogated before.

The U.S. Foreign Affairs Manual states that such request for refuge are generally granted only when the U.S. citizen "would otherwise be in danger of serious harm."

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said three Americans were at the embassy.

It was unclear if LaHood was among them. In a text message, LaHood referred queries to an IRI spokeswoman in Washington, who did not respond to requests to comment.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States had been in touch with Egyptian officials about the issue.