Myanmar hunts for 4 activist monks

YANGON, MYANMAR (AP) -- Myanmar's junta said Friday that hundreds of Buddhist monks were detained during its crackdown on pro-democracy activists and that it was hunting for four more clerics it described as ringleaders of the uprising.

The government insisted that most of the monks had already been freed, with only 109 still in custody, according to an official statement broadcast on state TV.

The junta's treatment of the Buddhist monks _ who are revered in this deeply religious nation _ is a key issue that could anger soldiers loyal to the military rulers.

Twenty-nine monks were suspected of being protest leaders and 25 of them were already in custody, state media said. It identified the monks still at large as U Kantiya, U Visaitta, U Awbatha and U Parthaka, but did not name their monasteries.

Demonstrations that began in mid-August over a fuel price increase swelled into Myanmar's largest anti-government protests in 19 years, inspired largely by thousands of monks coming out on the streets.

Television images last week showed soldiers shooting into crowds of unarmed protesters _ but the government on Friday described the troops' reaction as "systematically controlling" the protesters.

The government says 10 people were killed in the Sept. 26-27 crackdown and 2,100 were detained. But dissident groups put the death toll at more than 200 and the number of detainees at nearly 6,000.

The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, said the military government's new willingness to hold talks with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi marked "an hour of historic opportunity."

"This is a potentially welcome development which calls for maximum flexibility on all sides," Gambari said, briefing the U.N. Security Council about his four-day visit to Myanmar.

On Thursday, Myanmar's military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, said he was prepared to meet with Suu Kyi if she stopped supporting international sanctions against the country.

The United States and the European Union have issued some sanctions against Myanmar's junta, but China and Russia have ruled out any Security Council action.

Diplomats and opposition figures were skeptical that Than Shwe's offer was genuine but expressed hope that the meeting with Suu Kyi would take place. The two have not met since 2002.

Shari Villarosa, the acting U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, flew to the remote capital of Naypyitaw on Friday for a rare meeting with the deputy foreign minister, but U.S. officials said the meeting was not productive.

"What she heard in private was not very different than what we hear from the government in public," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The state media said troops searched 18 monasteries where alleged rogue monks were living. Initially, authorities detained 513 monks, one novice, 167 men and 30 women lay disciples from the monasteries, but most were released, it said.

Only 109 monks and nine other men are still being questioned, it said.

A government official met senior Buddhist monks Friday in Yangon, the country's main city, and asked them to "expose four monks who are at large," the report said.

The visit aimed to show ordinary people that the ruling generals still had high regard for the Buddhist clergy, despite targeting monks in the crackdown.

Older abbots are more closely tied to the junta, while younger monks are seen as more sympathetic to the pro-democracy protesters. Hundreds of monks were sent back to their hometowns this week from monasteries in Yangon. It was not known who ordered them out of the city _ the abbots or the government.

Security forces also claimed to have seized nonreligious material from the monasteries, including pornographic videos, literature from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, and headbands with a swastika or a U.S. flag.

The official report also said a body found floating in Pzundaung Creek in eastern Yangon last week was not that of a monk _ as claimed by a dissident group _ but a man "with a piece of saffron robe tied round his neck."

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based dissident group, said Friday that more than 250 protests have taken place in Myanmar since Aug. 19.

Life in Yangon was slowly returning to normal but security remained tight downtown. A half-dozen military trucks were stationed near the Sule Pagoda, a flash point of the unrest.

The typically busy area around the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda was eerily quiet, and seven fire engines with water hoses remained parked in the compound.

Elsewhere in the city, schools, classes and stores were all open.

In Geneva, the head of the U.N. telecommunications agency criticized the junta's decision to block access to the Internet during the protests.

"No government has the right to cut off its citizens from cyberspace," said Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union.

Dissidents and foreigners had used the Internet to get word out of the government's brutal crackdown. Internet service was spotty Friday in Yangon.

Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962. The current junta came to power after routing a 1988 pro-democracy uprising, killing at least 3,000 people. Suu Kyi's party won elections in 1990 but the junta refused to accept the results.

Suu Kyi, who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her democracy campaign.

Posted by LS

Associated Press contributed to this report.