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U.N. envoy to Myanmar heads back to Asia; military junta restores Internet access

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's ruling junta has restored Internet access and relaxed a nighttime curfew, a partial easing of its crackdown as a U.N. envoy headed to Asia on Sunday to rally regional support for help with the country's crisis.

Internet access in Myanmar was cut off Sept. 28, two days after troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters and images of the crackdown were plastered on Web sites. Internet service was intermittently restored earlier this month for short periods during the day.

The curfew was relaxed to four hours — from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m — starting Saturday night. It initially covered the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The concessions, however, came amid reports that the government continued detaining dissidents.

Security forces on Saturday arrested four prominent political activists who went into hiding to escape a government manhunt after leading some of the first major marches several weeks ago, Amnesty International said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the arrests "clearly demonstrate that there needs to be an international presence on the ground," referring to U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari's trip.

"We're encouraging special envoy Gambari to get back to Burma as soon as possible," Rice told reporters aboard her plane as she went from Russia to the Middle East. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

Gambari's mission was to coordinate efforts among key governments to help resolve Myanmar's crisis. He was flying into Bangkok ahead of Monday talks with Thailand's leaders. He was then due to travel to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and Japan before returning to Myanmar, where he met with the junta's leaders earlier this month.

Myanmar's military leaders have rebuffed calls for reforms, saying the only way to bring change to the country is to follow the junta's seven-step "road map" to democracy. The stance was reiterated Sunday in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece of the junta.

"There will emerge a peaceful, modern and developed democratic nation — according to the state's seven-step road map," a newspaper editorial said. It added that citizens "who are shouting at full-blast" for U.N. intervention were traitors "trying to hand over their motherland to alien countries."

"Such national traitors will soon meet their tragic ends," the editorial said.

The road map is supposed to culminate in a general election at an unspecified future date. But so far only the first stage — drawing up guidelines for a new constitution — has been completed, and that took over a decade. Critics say the plan has no clear timetable and is a ruse to allow the military to hold onto power.

Among the activists recently detained was one of Myanmar's most famous dissidents, Htay Kywe. Others arrested were Aung Htoo and Thin Thin Aye, also known as Mie Mie.

The three were believed to be the last remaining activists at large from the 88 Generation Students' Group — the country's boldest dissident group — which was at the forefront of a 1988 democracy uprising and one of the main forces behind the protests that started in August. A fourth activist, Ko Ko, was also arrested, Amnesty International said.

Troops crushed the more recent pro-democracy demonstrations by shooting into crowds of protesters in Yangon on Sept. 26-27. The regime says 10 people were killed in the clashes and 2,100 were detained, but diplomats and dissidents say that the toll is much higher, and that as many as 6,000 people were taken into custody.

The U.N. Security Council issued its first statement on Myanmar on Thursday, condemning the violence against protesters and emphasizing "the importance of the early release of all political prisoners and remaining detainees." It also called for a "genuine dialogue" between the country's military rulers and the pro-democracy opposition.

Also on Sunday, Myanmar held a state funeral for late Prime Minister Soe Win, who died Friday at 59 after suffering from what relatives said was leukemia. Soe Win was the fourth-ranking member of the military junta and largely considered a figurehead.

His death was unlikely to cause a change in the regime's grip on the country. The current junta came to power after crushing the 1988 uprising.