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ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - The White House said on Wednesday it was keeping a close watch on protests in Egypt and reiterated that the United States backs Egyptians' "universal rights" of assembly and speech.
Asked whether the United States still supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Egypt remains a "close and important ally."
"We are monitoring closely the situation in Egypt," he told reporters traveling with U.S. President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One. "We continue to believe first and foremost that all of the parties should refrain from violence."
Thousands of Egyptians defied a ban on protests and took to the streets to demand Mubarak's departure after 30 years of rule and some scuffled with police.
"We are supportive of the universal rights of assembly (and) speech. Again, we would stress quite clearly for all involved that expressions should be free from violence," Gibbs said, re-emphasizing a message to an important U.S. ally sent by the White House on Tuesday as Egyptian unrest mounted.
"This is an important time for the government to demonstrate its responsibilities to the people of Egypt in recognizing those universal rights," Gibbs said.
As the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, Egypt has significant strategic importance to the United States. Egypt has long received substantial U.S. aid and supported Washington's efforts to promote wider Israeli-Arab peace.