US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta conveyed his "deep concern" to Egypt's military ruler over police raids on pro-democracy groups, the Pentagon said, after a major clampdown this week drew a torrent of criticism.
In a phone call Friday to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi that underscored Washington's dismay over the issue, Panetta also thanked the military chief for his "prompt decision to halt the raids," press secretary George Little said in a statement.
US officials earlier said Washington received assurances from Egypt that it will stop raids on American and other non-governmental organizations as well as return confiscated property.
Some of the organisations targeted in Thursday's swoops on 17 offices of local and international NGOs charged that the security force action ordered by Egypt's military rulers was worse than that under the veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak whom they replaced in February.
European officials had also expressed concern about the implications for the promised transition to democracy in the Arab world's most populous nation, which is one of the major achievements of this year's Arab Spring.
"The secretary expressed his deep concern about the raids that took place on December 29 on the offices of American and other NGOs," Little said.
"He also conveyed his appreciation for Field Marshal Tantawi's prompt decision to halt the raids, and to take steps that will make it easier for NGOs to operate in Egypt."
Panetta also stressed that it was "critical for Egypt to continue on the path to democratic transition" after two rounds of parliamentary elections.
The Pentagon chief reaffirmed the importance of US security ties with Egypt, which receives more than one billion dollars in annual aid from the United States.
The military leaders assured US ambassador in Cairo Anne Patterson that the raids on US and other pro-democracy groups would stop, and confiscated property, including computers and documents, be returned, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"The ambassador has sought and received Egyptian leadership assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately," Nuland said.
"She has also made clear that we expect all international NGOs, including those that receive US government support, be able to return to normal operations as soon as possible in support of the democratic transition underway in Egypt."
But deep suspicion remains towards the military after days of deadly clashes between troops and protesters demanding an immediate transition to a civilian government with full powers, with many questioning the generals' readiness to hand over the reins.
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Rabab al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said recent tirades by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) against the protesters and campaigns against the most vocal opposition movements were "indicators of a clear attack on voices of dissent".
"The raids on NGO offices have to be seen in the wider context, they cannot be taken in isolation," she told AFP.
In recent weeks, the military has charged that it uncovered a plot to burn down parliament, while state media spoke of plans for nationwide unrest on January 25, the first anniversary of the launch of protests against Mubarak, in preparation for a foreign invasion.
"They are demonising anything foreign... in a bid to inject a sense of nationalism," said Mahdi.
They are "trying to draw loyalty so that any attack on SCAF is an attack on the nation," she added.
Hailed during the uprising for not siding with Mubarak, the generals now face growing discontent over their use of military courts to try civilians and suspicions that they are delaying the promised transition to civilian rule.
"There has been a smear campaign against the whole principle of foreign funding. The latest move is a way to narrow the space for civil society," said Heba Morayef, Egypt-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"They have specifically targeted the NGOs most active in exposing military abuses and pushing for real reform," she told AFP.
At least three US groups -- the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House -- were targeted in the operation.
Freedom House president David J. Kramer said the actions taken against NGOs "represent an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime".
The office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said the raids were aimed at intimidating campaigners and called for an end to "heavy-handed" tactics.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the raids were "particularly worrying," while Germany said they were "unacceptable" and called in the Egyptian ambassador.
British Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Browne, said the NGOs whose offices had been raided were supporting the transition to democracy in Egypt.
"Civil society has a vitally important role to play in that transition and should be encouraged and supported rather than impeded," he said.