Egypt Delays Political Talks

Egypt said Saturday it was putting off a U.S- backed conference originally scheduled next month to discuss plans for political reforms in the Middle East, apparently over a dispute over the detention of a prominent opposition leader.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abould Gheit said the conference scheduled for March 3 will be postponed indefinitely. "The conference is postponed and a new date will be set after consultations with the countries invited," Aboul Gheit said in a statement.

He said the move was made after some Arab countries urged a postponement until after an Arab leadership summit due in Algeria next month. He did not name the Arab countries that called for the delay.

Diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the Egyptian move was linked to tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations over the detention of Ayman Nour, leader of the al-Ghad Party (search).

Nour, who heads the newly formed party, was arrested Jan. 29 after parliament voted to withdraw his immunity. He was subsequently detained for 45 days on allegations of forging nearly 2,000 signatures to secure a license for the party last year. He has denied the accusations.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had been scheduled to attend the postponed meeting, said Tuesday that she raised "very strong concerns" about the arrest of Nour during a meeting with Aboul Gheit.

Local and foreign human rights groups have criticized the detention of Nour, saying the government was clamping down on its opponents. They also blasted the Bush administration for what they said was an appeasement policy toward Egypt (search), a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Officials from more than 20 countries, including the G-8 (search) industrial nations and countries in the Middle East, had been scheduled to review plans for political, economic and social reforms in the region. The United States, a driving force behind the conference, sees the reforms as part of an effort to tame political extremism in the region.