House panel votes to withhold some Egypt aid

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Tuesday advanced legislation aimed at pressuring Egypt to improve its human rights record by withholding some military aid until progress is made.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a wide-ranging foreign aid bill for next year that would hold back $200 million in military funds for Egypt until the close U.S. ally takes steps to curb police abuses, reform its judicial system and stop weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.

The measures, included in a $34.2 billion foreign aid bill for fiscal 2008, which starts on October 1, still must be debated by the full House and the Senate.

The bill also would bar U.S. diplomatic operations in Libya until Tripoli pays off families of those killed in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Libya reached a settlement to pay families of the Lockerbie bombing victims $10 million per victim, but has not paid the final $2 million each that the families believe they are owed.

"We are deeply encouraged by this important step by Congress to hold Libya accountable before it is rewarded with diplomatic relations," said Kara Weipz, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.

U.S.-Libya ties have improved dramatically since Libya's 2003 decision to give up weapons of mass destruction, but outstanding disputes over Lockerbie and other issues have prevented a full thaw and ambassadors have not yet been exchanged.


Overall, Egypt would receive $1.3 billion in grants next year, out of $4.5 billion to all countries, to help Cairo buy military hardware and finance military training from the United States. This is in addition to U.S. economic aid.

"The $200 million cut is substantial," said Rep. James Moran, a Virginia Democrat. "Our ally is not upholding the principles that define us."

Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat who will steer the bill through the House, said she hoped Egypt would get the message and make progress on human rights matters before lawmakers finish work on the legislation later this year.

Egypt is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid and, under the House proposal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have to certify Egypt's progress on human rights and weapons smuggling before the $200 million would be released.

Last week, President George W. Bush called on Egypt to release opposition leader Ayman Nour from jail. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Bush of "unacceptable" meddling in his country's domestic affairs.

The appropriations panel also took a similar step against Indonesia, putting conditions on $2 million, out of a total of $8 million, in military funds to that country. The Bush administration wanted $15.7 million in military aid it.

Before the $2 million can be released, the bill says Indonesia must prosecute and punish armed forces personnel involved in gross human rights violations.

For Pakistan, another controversial U.S. aid recipient, $300 million in military grants would be provided next year, the same level as this year and matching Bush's request for fiscal 2008.

The foreign aid bill, which would spend $700 million less than Bush wanted, faces a possible presidential veto because of language Democrats inserted allowing the U.S. Agency for International Development to send contraceptives to family planning organizations abroad.

The Bush administration has advocated education programs on abstinence until marriage.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming)