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US pro-democracy worker stopped at Egypt airport

CAIRO -- An American woman banned from leaving Egypt as part of its crackdown on foreign-funded pro-democracy groups was stopped from boarding an international flight Thursday, Cairo airport officials said.

The officials said Mary Elizabeth Whitehead, 56, was trying to board a flight to Germany minutes before take off, when airport security stopped her. She had taken no luggage with her. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with police regulations.

The spat over the non-government groups has caused the deepest crisis in Washington's relations with Cairo in decades, particularly after strong ties under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year-long rule.

Government officials accuse the organizations of interfering in Egypt's internal affairs and carrying out political activities unrelated to their civil society work.

According to the security officials, Whitehead was listed among seven Americans who are barred from travel by Egypt's attorney general. Some have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who heads the International Republican Institute's office in Egypt.

US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's son is one of several people currently not allowed to leave Egypt as tensions mount between America and the Middle Eastern country.

The U.S. State Department says there are a total of 16 Americans facing trial. Egypt's state news agency says, however, that 19 Americans are facing trial on charges that include the illegal use of foreign funds and operating offices without licenses.

American officials have threatened to cut $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt over the NGO crisis.

Egyptian authorities have responded by blasting what they call U.S. meddling in the country's legal and internal affairs.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr said Thursday the case has nothing to do with the government and is in the judiciary's hands.

"It is being dealt with legally and it is not for the Egyptian government to get involved in the judicial process," he said, adding that U.S. aid to Egypt was not without mutual interest.

Egyptian civil rights campaigners say the investigations are retaliation by Egypt's ruling generals against pro-democracy groups that have been among the army's harshest critics since it took power when Mubarak was overthrown last February.

The 43 accused are due to go on trial on Sunday, charged with working in the country without proper legal registration, according to a judicial source.

The Americans work for four U.S.-based groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists.

President Barack Obama has urged Egypt's military rulers to drop the investigation, and high-level officials, including Republican Sen. John McCain, have flown in to Cairo to seek a solution.

After meeting with military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, McCain said he was given assurances that Egyptian leaders were working "very diligently" to try to resolve the NGO issue.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.