YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar pardoned more than 500 prisoners on Monday in an amnesty that included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists, a step that could strengthen the former military state's growing bonds with Washington.
An announcement on state television did not make clear if any of the 514 were political prisoners, but two activist groups who monitor dissidents jailed in Myanmar said more than 80 were given presidential pardons.
Bo Kyi, secretary-general of the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said on Tuesday 88 political prisoners were freed, possibly more. Ba Myo Thein from the Group for Freedom of Political Prisoners put the number at 84 dissidents, including 24 Buddhist monks.
The timing of the amnesty is significant coming ahead of a U.S. visit by Thein Sein, Myanmar's reformist president, who will head to New York on September 24 to address the U.N. General Assembly. The State Department said U.S. officials would meet the former junta general on the sidelines of the forum.
It also coincides with a separate U.S. trip that began on Monday by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent years under house arrest in Myanmar and will receive a congressional medal.
Suu Kyi's election to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July.
The United States has repeatedly called for all remaining dissidents to be freed as a pre-condition for further economic rewards, including a relaxation of a ban on imports of Myanmar-made products imposed years ago in response to human rights abuses under military regimes, which ruled from 1962-2011.
Ko Ko Hlaing, a presidential adviser, said Thein Sein would try convey to U.S. officials Myanmar's urgent need for the import ban and other restrictions to be eased.
'OBSTACLES' TO REFORMS
"It is a good chance for him to elaborate the real situation of development in democratic transition and socio-economic reform," Ko Ko Hlaing told Reuters.
"It is certainly intended to have some relaxation of restrictions and sanctions because they happen now to be obstacles in our reform process."
The European Union lifted its import restrictions on Myanmar on Monday, allowing it to join its "Everything but Arms" preferential trade initiative, which grants poor countries access to European markets without any quotas or duties.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said Myanmar's inclusion in the EU's Generalised System of Preferences reflected "the need to underpin such deep and important changes with real economic support".
In Washington, the U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to news of the amnesty.
"We are watching developments of the prisoner release closely and will work carefully to verify if any political prisoners are released," said a spokeswoman on condition of anonymity. "The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."
Among those freed was Shwe Htoo, 68, a retired school teacher who was jailed for 42 years for attempting to mobilize protesters in 1998.
Until last year, Myanmar denied holding political prisoners, or "prisoners of conscience", as they are often known, insisting all those serving jail time were criminals. Recent amnesties have included a mix of dissidents and criminal convicts.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generations Group of activists, most of whom were incarcerated under the military, said: "We welcome the release ... but there are still many prominent prisoners of conscience."
A prison department official in Myanmar, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said 399 of the 514 pardoned were foreigners, including 84 from Thailand and 18 from China.