Asia Crisis

U.N. rights envoy visits Myanmar's main prison

(Adds U.N. statement, final three paragraphs)

YANGON, Nov 12 (Reuters) - U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro on Monday visited Yangon's notorious Insein prison and other sites where protesters were held after soldiers crushed anti-junta marches in September.

A statement by the U.N. office in Yangon gave no details of the visits, but a diplomat said earlier Pinheiro would try to meet Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, two leaders of August's fuel price protests believed to be held at Insein.

"He is expecting to interview detainees before the end of his mission and receive further details on their records," the statement said. He is due to leave on Thursday.

The Brazilian law professor, on his first trip to the former Burma in four years, also visited Yangon's former Government Technical College and a police headquarters where some detainees from the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years were held.

He met senior abbots of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the state body governing Buddhist clergy, and visited two monasteries "involved in the recent demonstrations".

Hundreds of maroon-robed monks were among the 2,927 people official media say were rounded up in the crackdown.

State papers have denied any monks were among the 10 official dead, even though monks reported that at least five of their brethren were killed when soldiers and pro-government thugs raided monasteries thought to be leading the protests.

Several photos have emerged on the Internet of what appear to be mutilated bodies of dead monks, although it is impossible to known when or where they were taken.

Official media say all but 91 of those arrested were released after questioning -- a figure that, like the junta's death toll, Pinheiro is likely to probe in great detail. Western governments say the real toll is probably far higher.

Relatives of political detainees, many of whom played a part in another mass uprising against decades of military rule in 1988, said conditions in Insein had improved in the run-up to Pinheiro's visit.

"We were allowed to send things to them. We got a chance to learn their health condition. It's the first time since they were arrested in August," one family member told Reuters.

In the past, Pinheiro has been allowed access to all political prisoners he wished to see, but stormed out of an interview with a detainee at Insein four years ago when he discovered a tape recorder stuck beneath the table.

Before September's crackdown, Amnesty International estimated the junta was holding around 1,100 political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

Pinheiro's visit, which will see him fly to the regime's jungle capital, Naypyidaw, on Tuesday, followed the departure of Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N.'s point-man on Myanmar, last week.

Gambari's second visit since the crackdown sparked hopes the military might be willing to talk about political reform with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Nobel laureate's political party, which won a 1990 election landslide only to be denied power by the army, quoted her as being "optimistic" during a meeting with party chiefs.

Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years, said the generals were "serious and really willing to work for national reconciliation", party spokesman Nyan Win said.

Gambari briefed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by telephone on Monday and will report back to the Security Council later this week, Ban's spokeswoman said.

"A process has been launched that will hopefully lead to a meaningful and substantive dialogue with concrete outcomes within an agreed time frame," spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons at the United Nations, writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler)