Myanmar to free 452 prisoners before Obama visit

Myanmar is set to free hundreds of prisoners on Thursday, officials said, just days ahead of a landmark visit by US President Barack Obama to a country emerging from decades of military rule.

Relatives of the scores of political detainees still languishing in jails were waiting anxiously to learn whether they would be among those released.

A prison department official said 452 prisoners would walk free on Thursday morning.

"There are some foreigners included in the amnesty," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity, without giving details of their nationalities. The planned release was also announced in state media.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has already freed hundreds of political prisoners incarcerated by the former junta as part of reforms that have led to a dramatic thaw in relations between the former pariah nation and the West.

Obama will on Monday become the first sitting US president ever to visit Myanmar, where he will talk with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Democracy campaigner Suu Kyi was herself released by the regime in 2010 after years under house arrest.

A spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) welcomed the latest amnesty, but questioned its timing.

"It is strange that they released prisoners just before Obama's visit," Ohn Kyaing told AFP.

"They should have done it before and showed their genuine will to give the amnesty," he said, adding that it was unclear if any NLD members were among those due to be released.

The last major amnesty in September saw dozens of dissidents freed just ahead of a historic visit to the United Nations in New York by Thein Sein, but left many political prisoners behind bars.

Estimates of their number vary but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based campaign group, put the current figure at 283 in a list posted on its website on October 31.

The visit by Obama -- fresh from his re-election victory -- has been lauded by Myanmar as a sign of confidence in the reforms introduced under a nominally civilian government, which replaced the junta in March 2011.

It also comes as deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the country's impoverished west casts a shadow over the political changes.

Clashes in Rakhine State have claimed 180 lives since June and forced more than 110,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, into makeshift camps.

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