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Prisoners in Burma taste freedom

Burma's government has freed an outspoken critic and a major ethnic rebel as it began releasing 6,300 convicts in its latest liberalising move.

But the regime has kept several political detainees behind bars, dampening hopes for a broader amnesty.

It was not clear how many of the country's estimated 2,000 political detainees were included in the amnesty - one estimate said only 155 of them were freed.

However, the released included ailing Shan Army commander Hso Hten and comedian Zarganar, who was imprisoned after criticising the government response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

"I will be happy and I will thank the government only when all of my friends are freed," Zarganar said after his release in northern Kachin State. He joked when asked about his health, saying sarcastically: "I am the healthiest person in the country. I am the strongest."

Relatives of convicts held emotional reunions with loved ones outside prisons around Burma a day after the country's new civilian president declared an amnesty for 6,359 inmates - many of them ordinary criminals - on humanitarian grounds.

Western governments, the UN and Burma's opposition have eagerly awaited a broad political amnesty as a gesture of liberalisation by the elected government after decades of harsh military rule. A failure to follow through on those hopes could hamper the country's efforts to improve its human rights record and win a lifting of Western economic and political sanctions.

"The freedom of each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be released," said Burma's most prominent pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy confirmed the release of 155 political detainees, including members of the party, spokesman Nyan Win said. But other dissidents could have been freed without having contacted anyone yet.

President Thein Sein, a retired senior army officer who took office in March, has launched a series of economic reforms and eased limits on freedom of speech by relaxing censorship and unblocking banned websites.

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