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Burma Extends House Arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi, Arrests Opposition Supporters


Burma's military government has extended the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for at least six months. Security forces also arrested about 20 opposition supporters. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok that meanwhile aid agencies say they are gradually gaining access to cyclone devastated areas of Burma.

Burma's military government was facing a deadline to either put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial or extend her detention. She has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years.

It is unclear whether she will be detained for another six months or a year.

Security forces were also seen arresting about 20 members of the opposition National League for Democracy who were protesting Suu Kyi's detention.

The decision to extend the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's house arrest was made as attention is focused on Burma's military rulers and their reluctance to allow international relief teams full access to cyclone victims.

Aid agencies say the junta's grip appears to have loosened slightly since the country's leader, General Than Shwe, told visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last Friday that Burma would allow relief workers regardless of nationality.

The World Food Program's Paul Risley told reporters in Bangkok Tuesday that some WFP staffers have been allowed to travel to the hard-hit Irawaddy Delta, and seven of his agency's staffers received visas this week - something he said was a record.

"These are very small steps but they are encouraging and they indicate a greater awareness and the benefit of opening up access in particular for the critically international humanitarian workers to the delta areas," he said.

The World Food Program says that in the past three weeks, it has delivered food rations to half a million people, but aid has yet to reach many more. The United Nations estimates 1.5 million people have yet to receive any aid whatsoever. Aid workers who have managed to reach villages in the delta say they found people who have not eaten for days.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations pledged tens of millions of dollars for relief efforts at a donors' conference Sunday in Rangoon. Aid agencies say there is plenty of money to fund relief efforts - if the generals allow open access to international teams that can assess the needs and also verify and monitor how the aid is distributed.

The Burmese leaders have said they will accept relief aid as long as it is not politicized and comes - in their words - with no strings attached.

Members of the international community have for years called on Burma's military leaders to release Aung San Suu Kyi. For now, the priority for other governments appears to have shifted to the relief efforts.

On Tuesday, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, just back Rangoon, said he and others left the matter of Aung San Suu Kyi out of conversations with Burmese generals at the donors' conference on Sunday.

"We knew what we were trying to accomplish," he said. "We did not want to crowd the agenda. We did not want to complicate the proceeding. At least we accomplished one thing, and that is: there is an engagement. There is a space for engagement on humanitarian issues."

Donor nations have said further pledges will depend on the amount of access and transparency that Burmese leaders allow in the relief efforts.