Fresh outcry over Burma as Suu Kyi goes on hunger strike

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Britain yesterday demanded Burma's military junta immediately end the three-month imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi after the United States said she was on hunger strike, and expressed "deep concern" for her health.

A fresh international outcry over the treatment of the pro-democracy leader arose after the US State Department's surprise announcement that it had learnt she was refusing food in protest against her confinement. The Americans, who have recently toughened sanctions against the regime, made clear they were worried about her condition and safety, and would hold the generals responsible if any harm befalls her.

Yesterday, Mike O'Brien, the Foreign Office minister, contacted the London ambassador of Myanmar, as the junta calls the country. "I told the ambassador the British government holds the Burmese authorities responsible for Aung San Suu Kyi's health and welfare," he said. "It is now exactly three months since Aung San Suu Kyi was detained under measures that were described by the regime as temporary, after she and her supporters were attacked in a deliberate and pre-meditated way."

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been held in an unknown place since 30 May when her entourage was ambushed north-west of Mandalay by pro-government supporters armed with clubs, spears and iron rods. Her supporters say 70 people were killed. The Burmese government claims only four died. Scores of members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have been in detention since.

Three days ago, the US it began to enforce stronger sanctions, imposed in protest at her imprisonment, including the closure of its market to Burmese imports and freezing the junta's US assets.

The Burmese government responded dismissively to the State Department's remarks, saying the claim that Aung San Suu Kyi is on hunger strike was "groundless". Some of her supporters were also unaware that she was refusing food. The International Committee of the Red Cross in the capital, Rangoon, said they could not confirm the strike since they have not met Suu Kyi since 28 July.

The US announcement also included an appeal to Burma's military rulers - who barred the NDL from taking power after it won the 1990 elections - to hold talks with the political parties.

A day earlier, the junta's unelected new Prime Minister, Khin Nyutt, promised a "road-map to democracy" and a new constitution that would lead to fresh elections.