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Updated: August 16, 2009 09:08 IST

Myanmar Junta leader promises to free jailed American

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U.S. Senator Jim Webb meets Myanmar's detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Saturday.
AP U.S. Senator Jim Webb meets Myanmar's detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Saturday.

An American imprisoned in a trial with Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi looked forward to being deported from the military-ruled country Sunday after a U.S. senator secured his release in an unprecedented meeting with the junta chief.

Sen. Jim Webb was also allowed to hold talks with Ms. Suu Kyi - the first foreign official permitted to see the Nobel laureate since she was sentenced to 18 more months of house arrest on Tuesday.

The impending deportation indicates ``good relations between the two countries and hope (that) these will grow,'' Yettaw's lawyer Khin Maoung Oo said. Mr. Webb echoed the sentiment.

``It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future,'' Mr. Webb said in a statement from his Washington office.

Mr. Webb said he would accompany American John Yettaw on a military flight to Bangkok on Sunday.

Mr. Yettaw, who had been sentenced to seven years of hard labour for swimming uninvited to Ms. Suu Kyi's lakeside house in Yangon, was being held at Insein prison, notorious for torture of political prisoners and ordinary criminals. Mr. Yettaw's lawyer said his client, who suffers from epileptic seizures and other ailments, had been well treated.

Ms. Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, and a global groundswell of international pressure to release the 64-year-old opposition leader has kept the impoverished military-ruled country under sanctions in recent years.

While Washington has traditionally been Myanmar's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta, President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation.

The regime has shown no sign it will release Ms. Suu Kyi before next year's general elections, which critics say will perpetuate the military's decades-old rule, but Mr. Webb's visit appeared to show the junta is sensitive to international censure.

``If the Americans can get the generals to see that their country's interest is reflected in taking interest in reconciliation, releasing Aun Sun Kyi and holding free and fair elections, that would be very helpful,'' said John Sawyers,

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations.

``It's important to have some measure of engagement as well as real pressure on the regime,'' he told BBC Radio 4.

Ms. Suu Kyi was driven from her residence to a nearby government guest house in Yangon for her 40-minute meeting with Mr. Webb. She was later driven back to her rundown, lakeside home.

Mr. Webb described his talk with the democracy icon as ``an opportunity ... to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world.''

Earlier Saturday, Mr. Webb held talks with junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the reclusive military council chief who had never met a senior U.S. official.

Mr. Webb may have been given the green light for the meetings to mitigate the torrent of international criticism against Myanmar following her trial. In July, authorities barred U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from meeting with Suu Kyi during a two-day visit.

``I think we have seen the worst of military behaviour and that it seems to me that the rulers may have sent some important signals,'' said Josef Silverstein, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University who has studied Myanmar since the 1950s.

``Having spoken and no one, neither in China nor Russia, have applauded, it seems to be that the soldier-rulers have started to backtrack,'' he said, referring to Myanmar's two key allies who have also called for Suu Kyi's release through a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Mr. Webb arrived in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw, on Friday, just days after the world condemned the ruling generals for convicting Ms. Suu Kyi of violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing Mr. Yettaw to stay at her home for two days. Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.

Activists have complained that the visit - the first by a member of the U.S. Congress in more than a decade - conferred legitimacy on a brutal regime, but the Obama administration gave the Virginia Democrat its blessing.

At Ms. Suu Kyi's trial, Mr. Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri, testified that he swam to Suu Kyi's home to warn her after he had a vision that she would be assassinated. He was convicted of helping Ms. Suu Kyi to violate the terms of her house arrest.

Some of Ms. Suu Kyi's supporters have referred to the 53-year-old Mr. Yettaw as a ``fool,'' but his lawyer, Khin Maoung Oo, described him as ``a compassionate, considerate and loving person'' who had hoped to save Ms. Suu Kyi's life.

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