Field Marshal Tantawi discusses developments in Egypt, region with UN chief, Kerry and Lavrov

77% voted in favor of constitutional amendments

Interior ministry building fire extinguished

Egypt in negotiations with Israel to amend gas prices

Obama says Gaddafi must go

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that his visit to Egypt was meant to support the transition period in the country, referring to great challenges for Egypt's economic reforms.

"What is happening in Egypt has a serious impact over the Arab region and other peaceful revolutions," said Ban in a press conference held in Cairo.

Each country is responsible for its legal process towards change, Ban stated, adding that the UN is ready to present Egypt its best experiences and practices for successful transformation.

Ban, who earlier met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Armed Forces Council, asserted that people has the right to express their views whether positive or negative, saying "I am ready to accept pro and anti-UN opinion, but it should guarantee the freedom of expression. "

"What is happening in Libya was regarded as crimes against the international human laws and the international human rights," Ban added.

At a press conference Monday morning with Arab League (AL) chief Amr Moussa, Ban urged the Libyan authorities to immediately end violence against civilians, saying it is vital that the world speak as one on the issue of Libya.

He also urged Yemen to end violence against civilians and start economic, political and social dialogues, and called on all sides in Bahrain to keep restraint and respect human rights.

Ban arrived in Egypt last week after meeting in Paris with European, Arab and African leaders to discuss "ways to move forward to protect the people of Libya" following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Thursday to impose a no-fly zone in Libya.

Senior US Senator John Kerry described as "very exciting" Sunday the huge turnout for Egypt's first taste of democracy after the ouster of veteran president Hosni Mubarak.

"I thought the referendum was very exciting. The numbers of people who voted, the excitement, the way they conducted themselves, there was a lot of energy," Kerry said on a visit to Cairo the day after the landmark vote.

"People voted for the first time in 30 years, not knowing what the outcome would be and I think it's a very good sign for the steps ahead, a very good sign," he added.

Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was speaking to reporters as he toured Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, epicenter of the 18 straight days of mass protests that ended Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

Earlier US ambassador Margaret Scobey hailed the huge turnout for the referendum on constitutional changes intended to oversee fresh elections within six months and a swift return to civilian rule after Mubarak quit last month and handed power to a military council.

"Egyptians yesterday (March 19) took an important step towards realizing the aspirations of the January 25 revolution," Scobey said in a statement.

"As we continue to assess reports about the voting, and regardless of the eventual outcome, the sight of Egyptians coming forward in unprecedented numbers to peacefully exercise their newly won freedoms is cause for great optimism," she said.

The military council has vowed to organize free and fair presidential elections within six months and a rapid restoration of civilian rule.

But the tight timetable it has set for the transition, leaving new political parties scant time to organize, has angered the young protesters who spearheaded the Tahrir demonstrations as well as leading opposition figures and secular parties.

They all campaigned for a "no" vote in Saturday's referendum, making the outcome difficult to predict in the absence of any opinion polls.

Preliminary results were expected later Sunday and final results on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said Egypt believes Russia will soon drop its recommendation to avoid visits to Egyptian resorts as the flow of Russian tourists is indispensable to help the country return to normal.

"Frankly speaking, Egypt needs economic help because the national economy strongly depends on the situation in the tourism industry, especially in this complicated period," al-Arabi said at a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

A nationwide revolution which forced long-standing president Hosni Mubarak to step down swept across Egypt in late January. The majority of foreigners living in Egypt fled the country over security concerns.

Lavrov said that Russia has already received security guarantees for its tourists from Egypt and pledged all the issues concerning their return to the Egyptian resorts would soon be resolved.

"We proceed from the fact that the situation in Egypt is improving. Representatives of our ministry have recently visited Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh, their impressions were quite positive," Lavrov said.

Over 10% of Egypt's labor force is employed in the tourism industry. About 14 million people visit Egypt annually.

Egyptian tourism raked in about $13 billion in 2010. During the nationwide tumult, Egypt has lost over $1 billion.

Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved changes in the constitution, opening the way for parliamentary and presidential elections within months, according to final results from a landmark referendum announced Sunday. Opponents fear the swift timetable could boost the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and members of the former ruling party.

The Brotherhood had campaigned heavily for a "yes" vote in the referendum. Critics say that since it and the former ruling party are the best organized political forces in the country, they stand to gain the most in an early election — which will bring in Egypt's first democratically elected government to replace the regime of ousted President Mubarak.

The results are likely to open a frenzied campaign season, with liberal pro-democracy forces scrambling to put together political parties to contest the upcoming races.

Shady Ghazali, one of the organizers of the protests that forced Mubarak out after 18 days, said the youth coalition that led the demonstrations is discussing putting forward a national list of candidates for the parliamentary elections under its name.

The parliamentary and presidential elections are key because the next legislature and government are to lead the process of wider change, including likely drawing up a new constitution.

Many of those who led the wave of popular protests that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11 want a radically new document that would break the total hold that the presidency held over government during Mubarak's rule. They worry that the Brotherhood or former ruling party could dominate the process.

In an interview with daily El-Shorouk, a top member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said that the council will issue "a constitutional declaration" right after the announcement of the final vote to lay down next steps, with approval leading to a timetable for parliament and presidential elections.

Elections commission chief Ahmed Attiya said 41 percent of 45 million eligible voters cast ballots in Saturday's referendum.

More than 14 million — 77.2 percent — voted in favor, with around 4 million — 22.8 percent — opposed.

Millions of Egyptians waited for hours Saturday to cast their first free ballots in half a century on the package of constitutional changes. The first test of Egypt's transition to democracy also offered ominous hints of widening sectarian division.

Many were drawn to the polls in a massive, last-minute effort by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among those most fearful of the Brotherhood's rising power were Egypt's estimated 8 million Coptic Christians, whose leaders rallied the faithful to vote "no."

Reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters were pelted with rocks, bottles and cans outside a polling center at Cairo's Mokattam district in an attack he blamed on followers of the old regime.

The day was otherwise almost entirely peaceful.

Hundreds of Egyptians formed lines outside polling centers before they opened. They snaked along the streets in Cairo and other cities, with men and women standing in separate lines as is customary in the conservative and mainly Muslim nation.

Saturday's vote was by far the freest since the military seized power in a 1952 coup, toppling the monarchy and ending decades of a multiparty system that functioned while Britain was Egypt's colonial master. Only men with military backgrounds have ruled Egypt since.

While Mubarak's overthrow has left Egyptians euphoric about their newfound freedoms, many are also worried about the social tensions and instability that could spiral in the wake of the autocratic leader's departure.

Christian-Muslim clashes this month left at least 13 killed and more than 100 wounded in the worst sectarian clashes in years.

On Jan. 1, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing at least 22 worshippers and wounding scores. A few days later, a policeman shot dead an elderly Christian man on a train.

The Brotherhood, which has strongly campaigned for the adoption of the changes, advocates the installment of an Islamic government in Egypt. The ambivalence of its position on what role women and minority Christians play under their hoped-for Islamic government — like whether they could run for president or be judges — worry large segments of society.

The military, in a bid to get the vote out, has decreed that they would be allowed to cast ballots at any polling center in the country with their national ID cards the only required proof of identity. They were required to dip their index finger in ink after voting to prevent multiple balloting.

A fire which broke out in a building in the Egyptian interior ministry compound in Cairo has now been extinguished, eyewitnesses say.

It came after a protest outside the building by about 3,000 police demanding better pay and conditions.

The cause of the fire, in the building housing the personnel department, is not yet known.

Last month, police set fire to the same building after demanding thousands of officers be reinstated.

Widespread strikes and labor-related protests have broken out since longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last month after 18 days of demonstrations.

Earlier, the military had cordoned off the building to keep protesters at a distance.

The demonstrators carried placards reading: "Where is social justice for policemen?" and "We want the cancellation of military trials", the Reuters news agency reports. Some police fear they will face prosecution for abuses committed during the Mubarak era, Reuters says.

Essam Issa, one of the police officers taking part in Tuesday's protest, told the AFP news agency: "They will blame us, but we had nothing to do with it."

The building was in the same compound as the offices of the hated secret police, which were disbanded earlier this month.

Two weeks ago, protesters stormed secret police buildings in several cities after rumors that officials were shredding documents in an attempt to destroy evidence of past abuses.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Abdalla Ghorab said Egypt is in negotiations with Israel with the aim of increasing the price of exported Egyptian natural gas.

The prices of natural gas exported to Israel are those stipulated by the contracts signed by the two nations, the minister told reporters.

Ghorab said that these prices are subject to periodic review in order to determine the best export rates. He added that some technical issues are currently being handled to resume the now-stalled gas supply to Israel.

Egypt's prosecution services have been conducting investigations since the beginning of March concerning the controversial natural gas exports to Israel.

Former Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy is under scrutiny as part of the investigations. He faces charges of squandering public funds through making long-term gas supply contracts with a foreign state at rates below the international standard.

Since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak following mass pro-democracy protests, the attention has been shifting to the gas export deal with Israel, which is considered one of the most flagrant examples of corruption during the Mubarak era.

Two years ago, a group of lawyers and political activists won a lawsuit calling for a halt to gas supplies to Israel, arguing that the deal cost their country's treasury hundreds of millions of dollars. The plaintiffs cited the financial advantages the Egyptian government provided -- through the deal -- to a company whose shares were mostly owned by Hussein Salem, a businessman and a close friend to Mubarak.

In 2005, both Israel and Egypt signed a 15-year natural gas export deal, according to which Israel would receive 1.7 billion cubic meters of gas annually at cut-rate prices.

One prosecution official estimated the losses suffered by Egypt due to the deal at US$500 million.

During the revolution, the pipe delivering the gas from Egypt to Israel was damaged by an explosion, which brought the supply to a halt.

On the other hand, US president Barack Obama has stressed Moamar Gaddafi has to go, as allied warplanes continue to pound the Libyan leader's forces amid a fierce battle for the key town of Ajdabiya.

Obama was speaking after the US general in charge of the campaign insisted Gaddafi was not a target and Russian president Vladimir Putin likened the campaign to a "medieval crusade".

The US president said the US expected to transfer the lead military role to other allies in a matter of days.

"Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Gaddafi's people," he said in Santiago, Chile.

Obama said as part of the international coalition now enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, he had "authorized the United States military to work with our international partners to fulfill that mandate."

"Now, I also have stated that it is US policy that Gaddafi needs to go," he added.

Early this morning the AFP news agency reported loud explosions, followed by barrages of anti-aircraft fire, were heard near Gaddafi's Tripoli compound, where a military command centre was destroyed by a coalition air strike on Sunday.

Libyan state television reported several sites in the capital had been subject to new attacks by what it called the "crusader enemy".

"These attacks are not going to scare the Libyan people," the TV broadcast said.

There were reports of explosions at the Bussetta naval base east of Tripoli, and a government spokesman said many people had been killed after Western warplanes bombed several ports and Sirte airport.