YANGON - Myanmar freed 155 Chinese jailed for illegal logging in an amnesty for thousands of prisoners on Thursday, a move that could ease diplomatic tensions with influential giant neighbour China.
Some 6,966 prisoners were pardoned including the Chinese citizens held in Kachin state, of which 153 were given life sentences last week that prompted a diplomatic protest by an"extremely concerned" China .
Despite Myanmar's flurry of engagement with the West since a quasi-civilian government replaced a junta in 2011, its ties with China - its economic lifeline during two decades of sanctions - remain crucial to trade, security and energy.
Relations have soured this year over fighting between Myanmar's army and a rebel militia that has seen Chinese citizens killed by stray shells in border areas.
The loggers were among 210 foreigners included in Thursday's amnesty, according to prison and Home Ministry officials.
Myint Wai, director of the immigration in Myitkyina, where the loggers were held, said buses were waiting to take them to the border.
China's Foreign Ministry confirmed the loggers had been released and said they would return home on Friday.
The loggers were arrested in January in a crackdown on Myanmar's lucrative illegal logging and timber trade. More than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized during the raid, state media said at the time.
Myanmar's porous border with China has long been a hotbed for illegal trade in timber and jade to feed Chinese demand.
That has fuelled resentment in Myanmar, which the Global Times tabloid, published by the Chinese ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, in an editorial last week said could have been the reason for the harsh sentences.
It was unclear if political prisoners were among those freed, said Bo Kyi, of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which monitors prisoners of conscience, of which more than 2,000 were held in Myanmar's jails and labour camps under military rule.
"Many prisoners will be released, but I'm not sure what kind of prisoners," he said.
Myanmar's incarceration of journalists, activists, politicians and even comedians was a key factor behind the West's imposition of sanctions, many of which were eased when reformist President Thein Sein started releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
He had said there would be no more prisoners of conscience by the end of 2013, a promise human rights groups say he has broken.
According to the AAPP, Myanmar, as of last week, had 136 political prisoners and another 448 facing trial.