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UN envoy begins rare visit to army-ruled Myanmar

Written by: Staff
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YANGON, May 18 (Reuters) A top UN envoy began a rare visit to Myanmar today to press the military regime to improve human rights and move faster to restore democracy.

Ibrahim Gambari, the first senior UN official allowed into the former Burma in more than two years, has asked to meet detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi during his three-day visit, but it was not clear if the junta would allow it.

The Nigerian envoy, who did not speak to reporters after arriving in Yangon, was due to meet leaders of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) on Friday at a government guest house a few miles from Suu Kyi's home, where she is under house arrest.

''All seven central executive committee members of the NLD are going to attend that meeting,'' NLD spokesman Nyan Win told Reuters.

''We have no idea if he will meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.'' Gambari will also hold talks with government officials during his stay in the Southeast Asian nation, which has been under military rule since 1962.

Diplomats said he would fly to the regime's new jungle capital north of Yangon to meet junta leader Senior General Than Shwe on Saturday.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Gambari ''will convey a clear message that Myanmar's prospects for improved relations with the international community will depend on tangible progress in restoring democratic freedoms and full respect for human rights.'' The visit comes amid a growing international outcry over what appears to be the Myanmar army's biggest offensive against the ethnic Karen minority in 10 years.

Thousands of villagers have been forced from their homes in Karen State since November, many of them fleeing to makeshift camps along the border with Thailand.

UN human rights investigators have called on the junta to stop targeting the Karen, saying ''reports from various sources corroborate very serious allegations of unlawful killings, torture, rape and forced labour''.

The generals say the campaign against the Karen, a mainly Christian ethnic minority of 7 million people, or just over 10 percent of Myanmar's population, is aimed at Karen rebels waging a decades-old war against the central government.

Karen rights groups say it is aimed at establishing control of a region where the junta has never held sway One group estimates 16,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and another says the junta is preparing to widen its campaign in Karen state.

The Karen Human Rights Group said the recent arrival of 7 new battalions of troops in Papun district ''suggests that a major new offensive is about to be launched''.

''Several villages have already been burned, rice supplies systematically destroyed and villagers shot on sight,'' the group said on its Web site at www.khrg.org.

REUTERS MIR PM1341

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