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Egypt police free journalists held in raid on news outlet

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Cairo (AFP)

Police in Egypt have released three news editors detained on Sunday in a swoop on local news outlet Mada Masr, the independent organisation said on its website.

The publication posted on social media that nine plain-clothed officers raided their Cairo office and questioned journalists there for several hours, demanding that they unlock their phones and laptops and hand them over.

Three journalists including chief editor Lina Attallah were arrested, but released later from Dokki police station.

A journalist at Mada Masr confirmed the release of those held and said they had spent only about 10 minutes at the police station before being freed.

Sunday's raid came at around 1:30 pm (11:30 GMT), a day after Shady Zalat, 37, a news editor who has worked at the prominent website since 2014, was arrested from his home.

The Mada Masr Twitter feed reported Zalat's release on Sunday at around the time the other journalists were being detained.

Mada Masr publishes investigations into corruption and security issues in both Arabic and English.

It published a controversial article last week alleging that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's son Mahmoud would be transferred to Moscow on a diplomatic posting.

His reassignment from a senior intelligence post in Egypt came after he had been criticised within the security apparatus, Mada Masr reported.

The article, citing unnamed Emirati and Egyptian officials, gave details about the country's security agencies at a time when press freedoms are shrinking in the Arab world's most populous nation.

AFP asked the interior ministry to comment but none was forthcoming.

Another Mada Masr journalist, speaking from outside the news site's building at the time of raid, described seeing several vehicles belonging to the security forces.

He was met by plainclothes police officers at the entrance of the building.

- Many journalists jailed -

"They initially prevented me from entering, then they took me up to the sixth floor where the office is. We knocked on the door and I saw my colleagues for a fraction of a second," he said.

"A policeman, also plain-clothed, said we don't want anyone coming or going and I was let go," he added.

Mada Masr is one of hundreds of websites to have been blocked by Egyptian authorities in recent years. It can be accessed domestically only via a virtual private network (VPN) app.

During the raid, the website live-tweeted the latest developments to its growing international audience.

Mada Masr said two foreign editors who worked there -- a Briton and an American -- were also escorted from the building.

They were taken to their homes in the capital to collect their passports ahead of deportation but were later released, it said.

Two France 24 journalists who were on the premises to interview Mada Masr's Attallah were also arrested.

"We asked why we were detained but no one answered," Eric de Lavarene, one of the France 24 reporters, told AFP. He said that he had had time to alert the French embassy of his arrest.

They were let go with other Mada journalists after security forces left the premises.

Lawyers outside the building were denied entry to speak with the journalists.

Rights groups regularly accuse Sisi's regime of crushing dissent and repressing its political opponents.

Amnesty International condemned Sunday's raid and called on the government to "refrain from punishing journalists for doing their legitimate work".

Egypt jails more journalists than any other country behind China and Turkey, according to the New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

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