CAIRO — A top U.S. diplomat met early on Monday a jailed senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, part of mediation efforts to end the standoff between Egypt's military-backed government and protesters supporting the ousted president, government officials said.
They said Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met in prison with Khairat el-Shater, the powerful deputy head of the Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which deposed President Mohammed Morsi hails. Burns was accompanied by the foreign ministers of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as an EU envoy.
El-Shater is charged with complicity in the killing of anti-Morsi protesters.
Burns and the three other diplomats are in Egypt as part of international efforts to end a standoff between Mohammed Morsi's supporters and the government installed by the military after it toppled the Islamist president in a July 3 coup.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The U.S. Embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
More than a month after Morsi's ouster, thousands of the Islamist leader's supporters remain camped out in two key squares in Cairo demanding his reinstatement. Egypt's military-backed interim leadership has issued a string of warnings for them to disperse or security forces will move in, setting the stage for a potential showdown.
Already, some 250 people have been killed in violence since Morsi's ouster, including at least 130 in two major clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters on July 8 and on July 26 and early July 27.
The government officials did not say why Burns and the other diplomats visited el-Shater, who was widely believed along with the Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohammed Badie to be the source of real power during Morsi's one year in power.
Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, has been held at an undisclosed location since his ouster. He was last week visited by the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and a group of African elder statesmen. Ashton said he was well and had access to TV and newspapers.
Burns' visit to el-Shater was authorized in advance by a prosecutor since he, Badie and four others are awaiting trial on charges related to the killing of eight protesters outside the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters hours after millions of Egyptians took to the streets on June 30 to demand Morsi's ouster. The trial is set for Aug 25. Badie is in hiding.
In a brief statement, the Brotherhood said Morsi remained the legitimately elected president who should be spoken to and not anyone else. It did not however condemn the Burns visit.
The visit came after Egypt's highest security body — the National Defense Council led by the interim president and includes top Cabinet ministers — announced that the timeframe for any negotiated resolution to the current standoff should be "defined and limited."
It also called on the pro-Morsi protesters to abandon their sit-ins and join the political road map announced the day of the coup.
With the Islamist-backed constitution adopted last year suspended and the legislature dominated by Morsi's supporters dissolved, the road map provides for a new or an amended constitution to be put to a national referendum later this year and presidential and parliamentary elections early in 2014.
Burns had extended his visit to Cairo by two days so he could have further talks with Egyptian leaders on Sunday and Monday. He met Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, who led the July 3 coup, and the prime minister on Sunday.
The State Department said Burns discussed the importance of avoiding violence and fostering an inclusive process "that helps Egypt's ongoing transition succeed" — another clear sign Washington has moved on from Morsi's presidency.
Burns also met for a second time this weekend with an anti-coup delegation that included two Muslim Brotherhood figures. He requested the meetings and urged them to avoid violence, according to Nevine Malak, who attended both meetings with Burns as part of the anti-coup delegation.
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