UN envoy waits to see Myanmar junta supremo

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YANGON, Oct 2 (Reuters) UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari was set to meet Myanmar junta supremo Than Shwe today to try to persuade him to end a crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in 20 years and talk to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But despite agreeing to see Gambari, the generals appear deaf to the international calls for restraint, posting troops and police across Yangon and dispatching pro-junta gangs to raid homes in search of monks and dissidents on the run.

''They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city,'' a Bangkok-based Myanmar expert with many friends in Yangon said.

''They can beat people, they can take them away, they can threaten them,'' he said of the feared Union Solidarity and Development Association, the junta's political party in waiting for eventually planned elections.

Gambari flew to the former Burma's new jungle capital to convey international outrage at last week's crushing of monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening poverty.

After three days in the country, during which he met three minister-generals and Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, Gambari was told he would be able to meet Senior General Than Shwe today, the United Nations said in New York.

His precise whereabouts, however, were a mystery. ''We have no idea where he is at the moment,'' a UN official said in Yangon.

The UN Security Council, which endorsed the former Nigerian foreign minister's emergency visit, is hoping the mission will kick start some sort of dialogue between the junta -- the latest face of 45 years of military rule -- and Suu Kyi.

After Than Shwe, Gambari was expected to have a second meeting with the 62-year-old Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, French UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said, kindling hopes of some sort of ''shuttle diplomacy''.

''He should be able to set up a structure for further talks that will involve all aspects, especially on how to get all the parties in Myanmar to talk together,'' said Razali Ismail, Gambari's predecessor as U.N. point man on Myanmar.

''If he can get that agreement, it will be a significant achievement,'' Razali told Reuters.

DEATH TOLL CONFUSION State media say 10 people were killed when troops opened fire last week to clear protesters from the streets of Yangon, the former capital and main city, although Western governments say the toll is likely to be far higher.

In truth, nobody knows how many died in the crackdown, which many feared would descend into a repeat of 1988, a nationwide uprising crushed over several months with the loss an estimated 3,000 lives.

''I don't think even the generals have any idea what the real death toll is at the moment,'' a Hong Kong-based Myanmar human rights expert said.

Buddhist monks say six of their brethren were killed in clashes with security forces and night raids on monasteries in Yangon, in which hundreds of monks were carted off. Many were kicked and beaten, people in the neighbourhoods said.

One shocking picture of the body of a maroon-robed man -- almost certainly a monk -- lying in a ditch is on dissident news Web sites and there are unconfirmed reports of monks caged at a technical institute in north Yangon going on hunger strike.

At the United Nations, Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, accused ''political opportunists'' of trying to create a showdown with foreign help so that they could exploit the ensuing chaos.

In a speech to the annual General Assembly, he said ''normalcy'' had returned and urged the international community to refrain from measures he said would add fuel to the fire.

INTERNET OFF In a sign the junta was confident it had squeezed the life out of the uprising, barbed-wire barricades have been removed from Yangon's Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas, the focal points of last week's monk-led mass protests.

However, soldiers remain at street corners to prevent even small crowds of demonstrators assembling. Government security men are searching bags for cameras, and the Internet, through which images of the crackdown have reached the world, remained cut.

The streets were almost empty of monks collecting their morning alms, witnesses said. The only ones out were very old or in their young teens.

One of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar was once the world's largest rice exporter and has an abundance of timber, gems, oil and natural gas but has suffered from decades of isolation and control by the military.

The protests began with small marches against fuel price rises in mid-August but intensified when soldiers shot over the heads of protesting monks, causing monasteries to mobilise.

Reuters SZ DB0958

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