Suu Kyi prays with monk protesters - witness

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YANGON, Sep 22 (Reuters) Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi prayed with Buddhist monks who marched past police barricades to her home today, the Nobel Laureate's first public appearance since her latest detention began in 2003.

The monks were among thousands taking part in growing street protests against the ruling military junta in Yangon and other cities. They were allowed to march through the police barricades and stand outside her gate guarded by 20 police with shields.

''We were overwhelmed and some of us could not control our tears,'' one witness told Reuters after 1,000 monks held a 15-minute prayer vigil at the lakeside home in Yangon where Suu Kyi is confined.

''Aunty Suu also prayed for the well-being of all.

''Making a gesture of respect with her two palms, Aunty Suu came out through a small door of the gate. She was flanked by two women. She looked quite okay,'' the witness said.

''The monks chanted prayers and wished her good health.'' The junta is facing the most sustained protests since soldiers crushed a 1988 student-led uprising.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide election victory in 1990, the first multi-party election to be held since 1960, but the military ignored it.

The last outsider to meet Suu Kyi, 62, was senior UN official Ibrahim Gambari in November and he hopes to visit Myanmar again next month. Suu Kyi has no telephone and her visitors are restricted.

In their biggest march yet, at least 5,000 Buddhist maroon-robed monks walked through Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay, today, witnesses said. Other observers put the marchers at nearly 10,000.

''There were several thousand onlookers on both sides of their route, giving water to the monks,'' one witness said.

''EVIL REGIME'' A group calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance urged ordinary people to join the monks ''to struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship till its complete downfall''.

Until now the monks, fearing reprisals against civilians and to ensure the protests remain peaceful, have discouraged others from joining the marches.

''We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperising our people of all walks including the clergy, as the 'common enemy' of all our citizens,'' said the alliance in a statement published on the Myanmar-focused news Web site www.burmanet.org.

''Therefore, in order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces.'' The marches are a sign that what began as civilian anger at shock fuel price rises last month is becoming a more deep-rooted religious movement against the military, which has ruled the former Burma since a 1962 coup.

More than 150 people have been arrested since the fuel protests began last month. But the army has been reluctant to crack down on the monks who were spurred into wider action after soldiers fired over the heads of protesting monks two weeks ago.

Memories of the nearly 3,000 people thought to have been killed when soldiers fired on protesters in 1988 are still fresh. Monasteries were key players in that uprising and analysts say the generals are making sure they treat the monks carefully this time around.

They say any violent incidents would trigger public anger and could prompt tens of thousands to take to the streets.

REUTERS GT RK2320

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