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Myanmar frees 651 political prisoners

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar freed some of its most famous political prisoners Friday, sparking jubilation among their supporters and signaling the government's readiness to meet Western demands for lifting economic sanctions.

Among the 651 detainees released were political activists, leaders of brutally repressed democratic uprisings, a former prime minister, heads of ethnic minority groups, journalists and relatives of former dictator Ne Win. State media described the presidential pardon as allowing them to take part in "nation-building."

President Barack Obama praised the release as "a substantial step forward for democratic reform," and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said ambassadors would be exchanged between the countries.

The United States has not had an ambassador in Myanmar since downgrading its representation after a 1988 pro-democracy uprising was harshly put down by the army.

But the United States and allies may take a wait-and-see approach on sanctions, to ensure that government truces with various ethnic rebel groups stay in effect, that discussions with Suu Kyi move forward, and that elections in April are free and fair.

There has been a parade of top Western diplomats through Myanmar lately -- Clinton in December and British Foreign Secretary William Hague last week. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is scheduled to arrive Saturday.

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