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Tillerson visits Egypt amid Sinai military operation and presidential campaign

Tillerson kicks off Middle East tour by visiting Egypt, where he spoke on free and fair elections
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry hold talks (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that Washington stood by Egypt in its fight against militants, as he began a Middle East tour at a time of increasingly complex local and proxy conflicts.

In Cairo, Tillerson stressed a need for "free and fair elections" in all countries ahead of a March presidential vote in Egypt, but withheld direct comment on what critics say is a crackdown on almost all rivals seeking to challenge President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the polls.

Sisi is running against a single competitor in the 26-28 March election after more challenging opponents pulled out, some citing intimidation of supporters and other tactics designed to give the incumbent an easy win.

Asked about concerns over the election, Tillerson said the United States supported a credible, transparent vote in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

"We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections not just in Egypt, but in any country," Tillerson said.

Egypt says it will conduct such elections, but opponents of Sisi have criticised a government-led crackdown on challengers.

The United States has become more embroiled, diplomatically and militarily, in regional conflicts since President Donald Trump took office more than a year ago.

It stepped up support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria before its NATO ally Turkey began a military operation against them last month, and has sided firmly with Israel in recognising Jerusalem as its capital, angering Palestinians and drawing rebukes from Arab leaders.

Air strikes hit Sinai after 'major operation' launched by Egyptian army
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The United States has also forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states while taking a tougher line against Iran.

Tillerson and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry said that bilateral relations between the two countries remained strong.

"We agreed we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures," Tillerson said.

"Egypt deals with the threats of ISIS themselves and are dealing with it certainly currently in the Sinai," he added, using a different acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.

"The US commitment in continuing to support Egypt in its fight against terrorism and bringing security for the Egyptian people is steadfast and will continue."

Egypt last week launched a large military operation against IS in the Sinai peninsula.

Sisi, a former military chief, gave the armed forces three months to clear Sinai of militants after more than 300 people were killed by gunmen at a mosque there in November. The Egyptian army said at least 28 suspected militants have died in clashes since the operation began on Friday.

According to eyewitnesses last week, at least 15 raids have so far been launched by military planes over the area, with most targeting the outer parts of Arish City.

State television said last Friday that all schools in North Sinai had been ordered shut until further notice.

Tillerson arrived in Egypt, one of the main recipients of Washington's foreign aid, at the start of a regional tour amid heightened tension between Israel, Syria and Iran.

Egypt receives $1.3bn annually from the United States. Last year, Washington withdrew some financial aid to Egypt saying it had failed to make progress on respecting human rights and democracy.

Later a senior State Department official said some of the issues "pending" in the US-Egyptian relationship included a law regulating non-governmental organisations, concerns on civil society and "democratic process baskets". The issue of American nationals detained in Egypt was also raised.

Tillerson said the United States was also keen to continue supporting Egypt in its economic recovery, after the country implemented tough economic reforms tied to a $12bn International Monetary Fund loan.

Shoukry said Cairo and Washington had agreed to hold strategic dialogue talks at the foreign ministry level later this year.

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