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Burma Announces New Prison Releases, but Few Political Prisoners Are Included

Burma's military government has freed another group of several hundred prisoners. Critics say most of those released are petty criminals, and very few are political prisoners.

The releases are part of a third group of more than 5,000 prisoners whom the government said it would release, bringing the total number released in the past month to more than 14,000. Opposition leaders say several dozen of these were political prisoners, but most were common criminals.

A government statement read on state-owned television said these detainees had been arrested inappropriately by the Military Intelligence Bureau, which was disbanded in an October purge that saw the dismissal of its head, then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.

The military government says that despite the leadership change, it will continue with a "roadmap toward democracy" announced by Khin Nyunt last year. And it will reconvene a national convention in February to draft a new constitution and organize elections. However, authorities have indicated they do not intend to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for the past 18 months.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said after meeting with the military leadership Friday in Rangoon that the junta told him releasing the Nobel Peace Prize winner could lead to political instability.

It was one of the clearest indications in many months that the democracy activist's release is not imminent, despite persistent international calls for her freedom. The European Union and Unites States recently issued new calls for her release.

The developments come amid reports of new attacks against ethnic Karen villages that some fear could signal a new offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU), the country's largest rebel group.

KNU Secretary-General Padu Mannshar told VOA that Burmese troops in the past month have burned about 100 homes and several thousand hectares of rice fields.

"From November 17 up to now they have some activity," he said. "About four battalions of the military regime make operations in our area."

He said he had no information on possible casualties. Civic groups working with Karen refugees in Thailand say nearly 8,000 people have been made homeless.

Mr. Mannshar notes that the attacks come in spite of a "gentleman's agreement" on a ceasefire between the KNU and the Burmese government.

"The fighting is not stopped," he added. "So it is a problem. So in the future what will happen is not sure."

Ousted Prime Minister Khin Nyunt advocated negotiations with rebel groups, offering them some autonomy in exchange for peace. However, the hard-line generals who consolidated their power in the recent shakeup are said to advocate a military solution.