India's 14-year-long hunger striker walks free from custody

NEW DELHI - An Indian woman who has staged a 14-year hunger strike against rights abuses in the country's northeast broke down in tears on Wednesday as she was finally released from a hospital jail.

Irom Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur for her unwavering and non-violent protest, said she was "happy" after spending years in custody, but vowed to continue her fast in protest at the military's alleged abuses.

Sharmila, looking frail and with her voice faltering, said she wanted "mass support" for her protest, as she emerged from a hospital in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state.

"I will continue with my hunger strike no matter what comes," she told reporters gathered outside.

"Unless and until my demand is fulfilled I will not touch anything else through my mouth.

"What I want from our people is not singing my glory. What I want from our people is their mass support, to give me mass support when I'm in need.

"I want freedom so much," the 42-year-old said.

A Manipur court on Tuesday ordered her release, ruling that a longstanding criminal charge against her of attempting suicide was unsustainable.

Sharmila began her fast in November 2000 after witnessing the army's killing of 10 people at a bus stop near her home in Manipur, which is subject to the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

She was arrested a few days later and was then sent to a hospital that was partly converted into a prison, where she was force-fed via a nasal drip several times a day.

AFSPA, which covers large parts of northeastern India and the restive state of Kashmir, gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight, and is seen by critics as a cover for human rights abuses.

Hundreds of journalists and others gathered outside the hospital in Imphal greeted her with flowers and cheers.

"I am overwhelmed with the support given to me by the people," Sharmila said.