At least two Myanmar dissidents were among thousands of prisoners freed yesterday after the military government announced it had begun releasing more than 5,000 detainees in a third mass release in less than a month, relatives and officials said.
The government has also launched a new offensive in ethnic Karen areas along the country's eastern border with Thailand, displacing nearly 8,000 villagers, private groups said.
A prison department official said inmates were being freed from dozens of jails throughout the military-run state and all 5,070 should be let go by the end of yesterday.
"We are releasing them from 41 prisons around the country and we will finish today [yesterday]," the official said.
Well-known political prisoner Htwe Myint, 77, a senior member of the opposition Democracy Party, was confirmed as released by his family. He had been serving a seven-year sentence which had already expired, relatives said.
"I have just been to see him at our cousin's house. The whole family is very excited," Htwe Myint's niece said.
Democracy Party chairman Thu Wai was also freed, according to a spokesman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party headed by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I can confirm that both men were released," the NLD's U Lwin said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate detained in May last year, is under her third stint of house arrest, and the NLD announced late last month that authorities extended her house arrest by another year.
Seven truckloads carrying more than 300 inmates were seen rolling out of Insein prison, Myanmar's largest jail, yesterday to be released at other locations.
The latest mass release is the third announced since Nov. 18 and brings to 14,318 the total number of inmates the junta said it would free because they were wrongly imprisoned.
It said the prisoners were freed "because of national intelligence bureau (NIB) irregularities," referring to a disbanded military unit accused by the regime of abusing its powers in arresting thousands of citizens.
The NIB was disbanded in October in a purge that saw the sacking of pragmatist premier General Khin Nyunt, who headed the unit for year, and his house arrest on corruption allegations.
Meanwhile, about 4,780 villagers in western Karen state are hiding in jungle and mountain areas after Myanmar soldiers burned their barns and rice stocks in attacks beginning in mid-November, the Free Burma Rangers, a group of Western and Karen volunteers who provide medical aid to displaced people, said on Saturday.
"The people in hiding are now beginning to suffer from dysentery and respiratory infections due to their being crowded into small hiding places with limited water supplies," the group said in a statement.
More than 3,000 other people have been displaced in attacks elsewhere in Karen state that began at the end of November, it said.
Myanmar officials weren't immediately available for comment.
The Karen have sought autonomy in Myanmar, also called Burma, for more than half a century in what is one of the world's longest-running insurgencies.
Decades of conflict have up-rooted hundreds of thousands of Karen, including about 140,000 now in refugee camps in Thailand. The main rebel group, the Karen National Union, has been holding ceasefire talks with the junta since late last year.