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Egypt frees Facebook activist

Female blogger who formed group calling for protests over price hikes has been released, officials say.

Egypt on Wednesday freed a woman detained earlier this month for forming a group on the Facebook social networking site that called for protests over price hikes, a security official said.

Interior Minister Habib Al-Adli ordred Esra Abdel Fattah's release after her mother appealed directly to President Hosni Mubarak for her to be freed, the official said.

"She is free, they have released her from the women's prison in Qantar," her lawyer Emir Salem told newswire AFP. He said he had not yet seen her but "I'm going to celebrate her release."

Fattah, 27, was among several bloggers, including Mohammed Sharkawi and Malak Mustafa, arrested ahead of what was supposed to be a nationwide protest on April 6.

Egyptian police took her from a Cairo coffee shop a week before the planned day of action. Her Facebook group had 64,000 members, but observation of the day of protest was sporadic.

Instead, protests focused on the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, where three people were killed by police after clashes erupted when demonstrators pulled down posters of Mubarak.

Mahalla became a flashpoint for popular protests by workers and residents against low wages and skyrocketing prices of food staples. A strike there in 2006 led to a wave of industrial action around the country.

Police used rubber-coated bullets and tear gas against stone-throwing youths chanting anti-government slogans and demanding an end to rampant inflation that has seen the price of some staples double in recent months.

On Tuesday, Fattah's mother published an appeal in the Egyptian press calling for her daughter to be freed "from the heart of Esra's mother to Mubarak's heart, to that of (his wife) Suzanne and of Habib al-Adli."

Another Facebook group has since been set up calling for a nationwide day of protest at price hikes on May 4, Mubarak's 80th birthday. It has also been calling for Fattah's release.

The group calls for "a day of civil disobedience and wearing black in mourning for the victims of Mahalla and the death of Egyptian and Arab media."

One member of the new group said that "If God created the world in six days, we can't expect to change Egypt in just one."

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was heckled by a student at Cairo University on Tuesday during a speech about "the Internet and how youth has to use it to express their opinions," Egypt's Daily News reported on Wednesday.

The student, Belal Diab, told Nazif: "We want you to release those detained on April 6," pointing out that those youths who do express their opinions "are now all behind bars."

Nazif responded that the "reason for detaining these people is the acts of destruction they committed and there is a thin line between expressing your opinion and encouraging destruction, striking and rioting."

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