U.S. Calls on Egypt to Stop 'Systematic Targeting' of Journalists

White House spokesman says time for transition in Egypt is now, and says government must ensure that peaceful protests take place.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the "systematic targeting" of journalists in Egypt is unacceptable, and said those detained must be freed.

Gibbs said the world is watching the strife in Egypt, and called on the government there to ensure that peaceful protests can take place. He said the time for transition is now, but wouldn't say whether President Hosni Mubarak should step down immediately.

Supporters and opponents of Mubarak have clashed in the streets following his announcements that he would not run for office again, but would stay in power until elections were held.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on Tuesday she had unconfirmed reports that up to 300 people may have been killed and over 3,000 injured in the unrest that has engulfed Egypt.

Conditions on the ground worsened on Thursday when foreign journalists were beaten with sticks and fists by pro-government mobs and dozens were reported detained by security forces.

A U.S. State Department official also expressed concern over the increased levels of street violence witnessed in television broadcasts. “We strongly condemn the violence that is taking place in the streets of Cairo today”, the official said.

“If it turns out that any of this violence is sponsored by the government, that would be completely unacceptable," the official added. "And every day that goes by without a clear and unmistakable move to begin this transition risks greater violence and instability.”

On the question whether or not the U.S. government was caught by surprise by these reports, the official stressed that the U.S. was aware of the growing tensions between the young population and the unresponsive government – but added that “there’s no question that what’s unfolding in the Middle East is unpredictable."

"I don’t think any of us could stand here today and say with certainty what’s going to happen in Egypt one week from now or one month from now," the official said. "Ultimately, Egypt will be more stable if it pursues a transition now.”