YANGON, Oct 24 (Reuters) Myanmar has freed an 85-year-old man and four opposition party members sentenced to up to 7-1/2 years in jail earlier this month for their roles in protests in the northwestern town of Taunggok, local sources said.
Some analysts see the releases as a sop to the United Nations, whose special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is to visit in the first week of November to try to persuade the ruling junta to start talks on reform with captive opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
''We welcome the release no matter whatever reason it is for.
We hope all those remaining in prison will be freed soon,'' said Ko Thein Hlaing of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Rakhine, a northwest coastal state.
The ruling generals have admitted to rounding up nearly 3,000 people and monks in their ruthless response to last month's fuel price and democracy protests, the biggest anti-junta uprising in nearly two decades in the former Burma.
However, state media say all but a few hundred have been released after questioning. Opposition and human rights groups believe the true figure is higher, and that more died in the crushing of the unrest than the 10 reported by authorities.
Facing unprecedented international pressure, the generals have also agreed to give a visa to UN human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who is expected to visit in mid-November, the first time he will have been allowed into the country since 2003.
One of the released Rakhine state protesters, Soe Win, had been sentenced to four years in jail for calling on Buddhist monks to withhold religious blessing from Senior General Than Shwe because of rough treatment of monks in the town of Pakokku.
Seperately, state media said Lieutenant General Thein Sein had been formally appointed Prime Minister, a position he assumed unofficially this year after Prime Minister Soe Win fell ill with leukemia. Soe Win died earlier this month.
Reuters AE DB2200