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WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama reached out to several foreign leaders about the unrest in Egypt, as Washington stepped up a diplomatic effort for a quick transition of power in Cairo.

Obama underscored the need for "an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now," the White House said in a statement on Saturday as a 12-day protest for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule showed no sign of abating.

The US leader spoke to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the statement said.

The comments came as the United States distanced itself from a one-time envoy's suggestion that Mubarak should remain in office during a transition.

Frank Wisner, an influential retired diplomat and former US ambassador to Egypt who met with Mubarak at Obama's request this week, "was speaking for himself and not for the US government," a senior Obama administration official said in Washington.

Wisner called Mubarak an "old friend" of the United States, and said he "must stay in office in order to steer those changes through."

"President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical," Wisner told the Munich Security Conference via video link.

"Frank Wisner was speaking as a private citizen... analyst... not as a representative of the US government," the US official said on condition of anonymity.

According to The New York Times, Obama administration officials said that in a series of phone calls and e-mails from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, they have urged the creation of a "council of elders" in Egypt to begin drafting revisions to the constitution.

These messages also encouraged newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman to jump-start talks with an array of opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the newspaper said.

Obama meanwhile "discussed his serious concern about the targeting of journalists and human rights groups, and reaffirmed that the government of Egypt has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people and to release immediately those who have been unjustly detained," the White House added.

He also "emphasized the importance of an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now, to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, including credible, inclusive negotiations between the government and the opposition."

The leaders agreed to stay in close contact going forward, the White House said.

The statement came as Washington welcomed as a "positive step" the mass resignation of leaders of Mubarak's ruling party, as it seeks to prod the strongman to the exit.

US officials hailed the move but urged more change.

"We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary, and look forward to additional steps," said one.

Separately, US Vice President Joe Biden told his Egyptian counterpart Saturday that "immediate steps" are needed on democratic reforms.

Biden, in a telephone call to Suleiman, "asked about progress in beginning credible, inclusive negotiations for Egypt's transition to a democratic government to address the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House statement said.

"He stressed the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the Egyptian government is committed to reform."

Biden also "expressed concern about continued raids on civil society and called for the immediate release of journalists, activists, and human rights advocates who have been detained without cause."

Meanwhile in Munich, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for international support for an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt as she warned of forces that might try to derail it.

A transition in Egypt "will become immeasurably harder if there is not restraint by government and security forces, and we thankfully saw that yesterday with the very large but peaceful demonstration," she said.


Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2011

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