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US envoy says Mubarak 'must stay' to steer transition

US special envoy Frank Wisner (pictured) said Saturday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "must stay" to steer the country through transition after weeks of unrest. The US government has since said Wisner's comments were made as a private citizen.

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AFP - The United States distanced itself Saturday from a one-time envoy's suggestion that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should remain in office during a democratic transition.

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

Wisner earlier 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.

"It's his opportunity to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country, this is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward."

Another US official said he did not actually hear Wisner's comments and declined to comment on them when reporters read them out loud, but stressed the former diplomat was acting in a private capacity.

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

On Friday, Obama said the proud "patriot" Mubarak should listen to his people and make the "right decision," avoiding an explicit request for the longtime US ally to step down immediately.

But citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, The New York Times reported on Saturday that new vice president Omar Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mubarak to make a graceful exit.

Mubarak, who has led the most populous Arab nation with an autocratic hand for nearly three decades unchallenged until now, has said he is "fed up" with his job, but prefers to stay in power until September elections while calm is restored.

Wisner said the Obama administration dispatched him on Monday to Cairo, where he met with the 82-year-old Egyptian leader and Suleiman. He is now back in the United States.

"The crisis is of extraordinary importance. What happens in Egypt affects all of our interests throughout the region," Wisner said.

"The United States has had a long and very close relationship -- 30 years plus -- standing with Egypt. Where Egypt goes, the domestic order, the external orientation of the Middle East, will be profoundly affected."

Wisner said his mission "was to make sure that we communicated in a respectful manner to a man who has been an old friend of the US but who now faces the huge responsibility of having to lead Egypt through a transition to a new and a different future, and to do so without resorting to force."

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