- Clinton calls the report "encouraging" but unconfirmed
- Americans "must respect the Egyptian law and the outcome," a judge says
- American NGO workers were caught up in a series of raids in December
- Egyptian authorities accused them of stoking unrest against the military-led government
Egyptian authorities have lifted the travel ban on 16 Americans accused of fraud and stirring up unrest after a series of raids that strained ties with a leading ally, an appeals court judge said Wednesday.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the announcement encouraging but unconfirmed. And another U.S. official warned that "the deal isn't done."
Judge Abdel Moez Ibrahim, the head of Egypt's Court of Appeal, announced the lifting of the travel ban and said the Americans still face charges and fines of 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $332,000).
"They must respect the Egyptian law and the outcome of the final verdict," he said.
Ibrahim said Wednesday's move applies only to the Americans and not to other activists rounded up in the late-December crackdown, which targeted international non-governmental organizations that promoted democracy. Egyptian authorities called their work part of a pattern of international interference that was stoking continued protests against the current military-led government in Cairo.
Wednesday's announcement could ease a tense patch between Egypt and the United States, its leading ally. Washington provides more than $1 billion in military aid to Egypt every year and had lobbied heavily for the detainees' release.
Only seven of the Americans are believed to remain in Egypt, all of them at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. One of those charged is Sam LaHood, director of Egypt operations for the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
An Egyptian court opened their trial on fraud charges Sunday, but adjourned until late April after the charges were formally read. The three judges handling the case stepped down Tuesday.
On Capitol Hill, Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that she hoped the report was true, "and we will continue to work toward that.
"The reporting is encouraging, but we have no confirmation," she said.
And a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the diplomacy, said the Egyptian government -- not the court, has to lift the ban.
"As far as we know, that hasn't been effectuated," the official said, adding, "We don't have the green light they can go home."
Khaled Abu Bakr, a member of the International Union of Lawyers, said the cases against the defendants will go on, "even if the defendants do not appear in court." But he criticized the current government for resolving the case "on the expense of the independence of the judicial system of Egypt."
"I would have preferred a resolution before the case reached the court," said Abu Bakr, who represents the families of people killed in the 2011 revolt that drove longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.
"This case highlights the importance of establishing a clear NGO law in Egypt, so that these valued agencies do not revert to this sort of action in the future," he said.