Representatives from Burma's largest ethnic minority, the Karen, have finished three days of talks with the military government on steps toward a formal cease-fire. The talks are set against continued concerns over Burma's human rights record.

The talks in the southern Burmese town of Moulmein are the second in recent months as representatives from the Karen and military government struggle to deal with refugees and troop movements within the Karen state.

The Karen - led by the Karen National Union or KNU - make up the largest of Burma's ethnic minorities, and they have been fighting for greater independence for more than five decades. It is one of the few groups that have not yet reached a cease-fire with the government.

David Htaw, KNU spokesman and a delegate at the talks, says both sides had expressed what he termed as "clear views" on issues of internally displaced Karen and control over troops. "We're happy to get that message and bring back to headquarters," he says. "So it's very good to know a clear policy from the military government to bring back and discuss within our own KNU leadership."

But Mr. Htaw says there is still some way to go before a formal cease-fire can be signed. It said much would depend on the KNU leadership's response to the talks.

The Karen - whose forces once reached the outskirts of Rangoon many years ago - have largely been fighting in eastern Burma, close to the Thai border. About 200,000 Karen have been internally displaced by the violence, and some 140,000 have been forced to flee to refugee camps in Thailand.

The latest talks mark a major step in the government's aim of adding the Karen to the 17 groups that have reached cease-fire agreements since 1989. The KNU expects the two sides to meet again at the end of March or in early April.

The talks come against a backdrop of human rights reports criticizing both Rangoon and the Karen for abuses.

A U.S. State Department report, released Wednesday, said Burma's already poor human rights record deteriorated last year, with reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and the suppression of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But the report also accused Burma's ethnic rebels - including the KNU - of killings, rapes, forced labor and the use of child soldiers.