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Burmese Opposition Launches Campaign to Free Political Prisoners

Burma's main pro-democracy party has launched a petition drive calling on the country's military rulers to free all political prisoners, including the group's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Several hundred supporters of the National League for Democracy signed the appeal Thursday at party headquarters in Rangoon. Others taking part included diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

An NLD spokesman says signatures also will be collected in other parts of Burma despite restrictions on political activity by the country's military rulers.

The spokesman, Nyan Win, says the goal is to show the government and the world that Burma's people support freedom for all political dissidents - more than 2,000 people. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been kept under house arrest in Rangoon for 13 of the past 19 years.

The launch of the NLD signature campaign coincides with Burma's Union Day.

Burmese military leader General Than Shwe marked the holiday with a speech in the country's administrative capital, Naypyitaw. He urged Burma's people to prevent internal and external destructive elements, as he put it, from undermining the country's stability.

General Than Shwe also urged all of Burma's racial and ethnic groups to help build a modern and democratic nation in accordance with a constitution adopted last year.

Burma's military rulers drafted the constitution without opposition input and put it to a national referendum last May, soon after Typhoon Nargis devastated parts of the country. The charter won 92 percent approval, a result Western countries regarded with suspicion.

Burma's government says the constitution implements democratic reforms, but critics argue it tightens the military's grip on power.

U.N. envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari and Japan's government jointly called on Burma Thursday to move ahead with parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Gambari discussed the issue with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone in Tokyo.

Japan's Foreign Ministry says the two diplomats agreed that Burma should conduct the election in a manner acceptable to the international community.

In another development, the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland said Thursday it will grant Aung San Suu Kyi an honorary degree in absentia. It praised her for continuing to fight for democracy and freedom in Burma despite her ongoing detention.