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UN Human Rights Envoy Calls for Release of All Political Prisoners in Burma

A United Nations human rights envoy is calling on Burma's military government to release all political prisoners and allow the Red Cross into zones of conflict with anti-government groups. The U.N. official made the call Monday at the end of a 12-day visit to Burma.

U.N. human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told reporters in Rangoon that the unconditional release of all political prisoners is needed while the Burmese government holds reconciliation talks with the party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also urged the Burmese government to consider allowing representatives of the Red Cross into conflict zones where the government has been battling rebel groups. He said the Red Cross could then assess the humanitarian situation in these areas, make what he called a confidential report to the authorities, and work out measures to ensure the security of civilians there.

The Brazilian diplomat has spent the past 12 days investigating allegations of human rights abuses that include torture, rape, forced labor and the mistreatment of ethnic minorities and political prisoners.

During his trip he visited two prisons and interviewed prison inmates, security officials, judges and diplomats. And he met with senior leaders of the military government and the opposition, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr. Pinheiro also visited Karen and Mon states, where ethnic rebels have battled government forces for decades. However, he did not visit Shan state, which is cited as an area where there is systematic rape by the military. The Burmese government denies the charges and welcomed the U.N. envoy's visit, his fourth in two years.

The United Nations has been trying to broker reconciliation talks between the Burmese government and the pro-democracy movement, which won national elections 12 years ago but was never allowed to govern.

Several hundred political prisoners have been released in the past two years. But human rights groups say more than 1,000 remain in prison and they have criticized the talks for failing to move to more substantive issues.

The editor of the Thailand-based Irriwaddy newspaper, Aung Zaw, said U.N. negotiators must find new ways to press for reform. "Along with the visit (by Mr. Pinheiro), the U.N. should sponsor, or find a mechanism, that will pressure government leaders to comply with the U.N. resolutions and demand they take the necessary political reforms. Otherwise he can visit again and come out and make a U.N. report and that won't make any significant change," he said.

U.N. mediators say progress is being made, but Western governments say they will maintain economic sanctions against Burma until they see progress in human rights and political reform.