CAIRO, March 2 (UPI) -- John Kerry, on his first visit to Cairo as U.S. secretary of state, told reporters Saturday the Egyptian people must choose their own government.
Kerry left Washington last Sunday on a whirlwind nine-day tour of European and Middle Eastern countries. He held a news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.
"I've tried to make it clear, and I make it particularly clear now on behalf of President Obama and the American people that we come here as friends for the Egyptian people, not for one government or one person or one party or ideology, but for the Egyptian people," he said.
But Kerry also suggested Egyptians need unity. The country in recent weeks has been hit by demonstrations and riots fueled by anger towards President Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party, political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We do believe that in this moment of serious economic challenge that it's important for the Egyptian people to come together around the economic choices and to find some common ground in making those choices," Kerry said.
Some opposition leaders, including Mohammed El-Baradei, head of the National Salvation Front, refused to meet with Kerry.
Syrian rebels clash at Damascus doorstep
DAMASCUS, Syria, March 2 (UPI) -- Rebel forces inched closer to entering the Syrian capital Saturday, trading fire with government troops in a Damascus suburb, an opposition spokesman said.
Free Syrian Army rebels are fighting along three fronts in the suburb of Jawbar, CNN reported.
"If we capture the area it means we have reached the heart of the capital," said Baraa, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Military Council who gave only his first name.
"It means we can cross into Damascus," he said.
This, as a foreign official said the Assad regime is ready to begin formal peace talks in the two-year-old conflict.
Iran's foreign minister said "there is no military solution" to the conflict.
"The Syrian government has voiced its preparedness (for talks) and there remains no excuse (for the opposition to avoid talks). Mr. Mualem has announced in Syria that his country's leaders are prepared to even talk with the armed opposition," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.
He told Iran's Fars News Agency the rebel forces would be "held accountable" if they continued to fight rather than negotiate with the Assad regime.
The FSA is now in control of a majority of Jawbar, the opposition Damascus Media Office said. The Assad regime is shelling the suburb with fighter jets and missiles.
Syrian state media said government forces had inflicted heavy losses in the Damascus suburbs and were pursuing armed terrorist groups in the area.
Fighting began Saturday morning in al-Raqa province near the Syrian border with Turkey, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Some 125 people were killed across Syria on Friday, the Local Coordination Committees for Syria reported.
U.S. furloughs could start in a month
WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- U.S. government agencies that employ a lot of people directly are likely to be affected first by across-the-board budget cuts, officials say.
That means everything from fewer meat inspectors to fewer rangers in national parks, The Washington Post reported Friday. The effects will be felt more slowly with agencies that spend much of their budgets on grants.
The automatic cuts, 5.1 percent or $85 billion, kicked in when Congress and President Obama failed to agree on a budget deal March 1, Friday.
Brian Mabry, a spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said most of the agency's 10,000 employees will be furloughed for 15 days if the cuts are not stopped. About 87 percent of the agency's budget goes to salaries.
"We can't just stop programs," Mabry said. "People are saying, 'Why can't you just send home all the personnel people and not the inspectors?' Well, there's no way to get from here to there without that."
Janet Riley, a senior vice president at the American Meat Institute, said all meat that goes to market will still be inspected. But with fewer inspectors, less meat will make its way to supermarket refrigerators and prices are likely to rise. Meat-packing employees could also get time off as plants close down one or two days a week.
Rights groups: Curb police violence
CAIRO, March 2 (UPI) -- Human rights groups urged the Egyptian government Saturday to investigate police violence in Port Said.
Three Egyptian groups, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Alkarama Foundation, and Human Rights Watch issued a report on violence in the city, which they said was based on a three-day investigatory trip, Egypt Independent reported.
Also Saturday, protesters set a Port Said police station ablaze after five people were run down by a squad car, Ahram Online reported. Witnesses said shots were fired into the air from the car, which then crashed.
Big protests kicked off in Port Said after 26 people were sentenced to death for killing 72 people following a soccer match last year. Two police officers and 40 civilians have been killed since then.
The rights groups called for changes in police procedures and command structures.
"President Mohamed Morsi should publicly acknowledge that the police's right to use lethal force is not unlimited, even when they come under attack, and order the police to limit any use of force to what is strictly necessary," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.