* Egypt must release peaceful protesters — Ashton
* Talks with opposition groups, civil society must begin
BRUSSELS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The European Union called on Monday for Egyptian authorities to hold talks with opposition groups, release jailed demonstrators and take steps towards democracy to end the unrest that has swept the country.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said she regretted the loss of life from a week of anti-government protests and that it was essential that all sides, including the police, showed restraint in order to avoid further bloodshed.
“We urge the authorities to release immediately all peaceful demonstrators who are in detention,” she told reporters as EU ministers met in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Egypt and the broader Arab world.
“The critical thing is for Egyptian authorities to be talking in an open and peaceful manner with all the opposition parties and civil society,” Ashton said.
“There needs to be a peaceful way forward and an open and serious dialogue with the opposition parties and all parts of civil society and we believe it needs to happen now.”
Ashton said Egyptians had legitimate grievances and the authorities had to respect democracy, the rule of law and human rights. She did not mention Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for 30 years, by name.
“Their (Egyptians’) aspirations for a just and better future should be met with urgent concrete and decisive answers and with real steps,” she said.
Leaders around the world are assessing how to respond to the crisis in Egypt, a close U.S. ally which with Jordan is the only country in the region to have a formal peace treaty with Israel.
Unprecedented unrest in the Arab world’s most populous nation entered a seventh day on Monday with thousands of protesters pouring into Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down.
There have been 138 people killed in clashes with security forces in scenes that have overturned Egypt’s standing as a stable country, a promising emerging market and an attractive tourist destination.
Mubarak appointed a new interior minister on Monday as part of an overhauled cabinet. The move appeared designed to defuse the most serious challenge to his rule in three decades, but there was no let up in the popular unrest.
EU foreign ministers will also discuss Tunisia, where a popular revolt drove out president Zine-al Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. The EU is expected to impose a freeze on the assets of Ben Ali and his family. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom)