Burma to free Suu Kyi US 'guest'

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An American whose unauthorised visit to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi led to her extended detention, has been released, the office of US Senator Jim Webb said today.

The statement from Washington said Webb, who was on a two-day visit to Burma, secured the release of John Yettaw, who was sentenced on Tuesday to seven years' imprisonment for swimming secretly to Suu Kyi's lakeside residence.

Webb was allowed to meet Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 18 months house arrest for allowing Yettaw to stay at her residence for two days.

Yettaw, 53, is to be officially deported tomorrow, when he will fly with Senator Webb on a military plane to Bangkok.

Before his conviction on Tuesday, Yettaw had spent a week in a prison hospital for epileptic seizures. He is also said to suffer from asthma and diabetes.

The junta may have approved the US politician's meeting with Suu Kyi to mitigate the torrent of international criticism against Burma following the trial and verdict. In July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was barred from meeting Suu Kyi during a two-day visit.

Webb, the statement from his office said, requested that Suu Kyi be released during a meeting with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe today.

Today, 64-year-old Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi was driven from her residence to a nearby government guest house for a 40-minute meeting with Webb, then reporters saw her taken home by car.

Webb, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, described the meeting as "an opportunity ... to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world".

While Washington has traditionally been Burma's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta, President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration was interested in easing its policy of isolation. Webb has said that "affirmative engagement" could bring the most change to Burma, concerning those who think a hard line is the best approach.

Britain's Ambassador to the United Nations today suggested Webb's visit could help persuade the junta to free Suu Kyi.

"If the Americans can get the generals to see that their country's interest is reflected in taking interest in reconciliation, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and holding free and fair elections, that would be very helpful." John Sawyers told BBC Radio 4.

But in a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the Senator's trip for its own ends.

"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandise that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.

Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs". He did not elaborate.

Official media, however, appeared to herald Webb's arrival. The nightly broadcast led with the visit, reporting that the senator met Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein on Friday, and returned to the subject several times during the night.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to honour the results when Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly.