Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners: officials

Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners: officials

YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar on Friday said it had released dozens of detained activists as the fast-changing former pariah state hosts top-level international visitors, including from the European Union.

Some 69 inmates were freed, the latest in a series of releases that have been seen internationally as a key marker of the country's emergence from military rule.

The president's office statement said the release was to "respect humanitarian grounds and allow (those freed) to be able assist in national building by understanding the benevolence and loving kindness of the state".

It reiterated a pledge that Myanmar would free all remaining detained dissidents by the end of the year.

The announcement, which said the releases began Friday, comes as Myanmar hosts a slew of international delegations.

Reformist President Thein Sein met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday as part of a wide-ranging European mission to the country.

He also met former US president Bill Clinton, who is in Myanmar on behalf of his foundation, while former British prime minister Tony Blair is also in the country.

Thein Sein, who has won international praise and the removal of most Western sanctions for his reforms, announced during his first visit to London in July that there would be "no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar" by the end of the year.

But the Myanmar leader has been criticised by activists who accuse authorities of continuing to prosecute dissidents. Scores remain behind bars, but the precise number of inmates is unclear.

The government also faces claims that those critics who remain behind bars are being used for political capital with the international community and during ethnic minority peace negotiations.

Myanmar freed 56 political prisoners in October - many linked to armed ethnic minority groups in the northern state of Kachin and the eastern state of Shan - as the government strives to reach an elusive nationwide peace deal with rebels.

Arbitrary imprisonment was a hallmark of the previous junta, which denied the existence of political prisoners even as it meted out harsh punishments to rights activists, journalists, lawyers and performers.

But the nation has since undergone dramatic change, including the release of opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi from long years of house arrest and her election to parliament.

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