YANGON, Myanmar — Stung by international outrage over the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's ruling generals agreed Saturday to hand an American prisoner involved in her case to a visiting U.S. senator.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., was also granted an unprecedented meeting with the junta chief, and was allowed to hold talks with Suu Kyi, the first foreign official permitted to see the Nobel laureate since she was sentenced to 18 more months of house arrest on Tuesday.
American John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years of hard labor for swimming uninvited to Suu Kyi's lakeside house in Yangon, will be deported on Sunday, Webb said in a statement from his Washington office.
The impending deportation indicates "good relations between the two countries and hope (that) these will grow," Yettaw's lawyer Khin Maoung Oo said. Webb echoed the sentiment.
"It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future," Webb said in the statement.
Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, and a global groundswell of international pressure to release the 64-year-old opposition leader has kept the impoverished military-ruled country under sanctions in recent years.
While Washington has traditionally been Myanmar's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta, President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation.
The regime has shown no sign it will release Suu Kyi before next year's general elections, which critics say will perpetuate the military's decades-old rule, but Webb's visit appeared to show the junta is sensitive to international censure.
"If the Americans can get the generals to see that their country's interest is reflected in taking interest in reconciliation, releasing Aun Sun Kyi and holding free and fair elections, that would be very helpful," said John Sawyers, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations.
"It's important to have some measure of engagement as well as real pressure on the regime," he told BBC Radio 4.
Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said officials in Washington had seen reports about Webb's trip and were "keeping up with the developments, including the impending release of American citizen John Yettaw."
Suu Kyi was driven from her residence to a nearby government guest house in Yangon for her 40-minute meeting with Webb. She was later driven back to her rundown, lakeside home.
Webb described his talk with the democracy icon as "an opportunity ... to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world."
Earlier Saturday, Webb held talks with junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the reclusive military council chief who had never met a senior U.S. official.
Webb may have been given the green light for the meetings to mitigate the torrent of international criticism against Myanmar following her trial. In July, authorities barred U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from meeting with Suu Kyi during a two-day visit.
"I think we have seen the worst of military behavior and that it seems to me that the rulers may have sent some important signals," said Josef Silverstein, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University who has studied Myanmar since the 1950s.
"Having spoken and no one, neither in China nor Russia, have applauded, it seems to be that the soldier-rulers have started to backtrack," he said, referring to Myanmar's two key allies who have also called for Suu Kyi's release through a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Webb arrived in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw, on Friday, just days after the world condemned the ruling generals for convicting Suu Kyi of violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing Yettaw to stay at her home for two days.
Activists have complained that the visit — the first by a member of the U.S. Congress in more than a decade — conferred legitimacy on a brutal regime, but the Obama administration gave the Virginia Democrat its blessing.
Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.
In a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the senator's trip for its own ends.
"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.
Reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs." He did not elaborate.
State TV has heralded Webb's arrival, featuring his meetings with the country's leaders in Saturday's broadcasts.
Yettaw, who is to fly out with Webb on a military aircraft bound for Bangkok on Sunday, was being held at Insein prison, notorious for torture of political prisoners and ordinary criminals. Yettaw's lawyer said his client, who suffers from epileptic seizures and other ailments, had been well treated.
At Suu Kyi's trial, Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri, testified that he swam to Suu Kyi's home to warn her after he had a vision that she would be assassinated. He was convicted of helping Suu Kyi to violate the terms of her house arrest.
Some of Suu Kyi's supporters have referred to the 53-year-old Yettaw as a "fool," but his lawyer, Khin Maoung Oo, described him as "a compassionate, considerate and loving person" who had hoped to save Suu Kyi's life.
"If it's true, of course I'm extremely happy and we're ecstatic," Betty Yettaw told The Associated Press, referring to reports that her husband would be freed. When reached by phone Saturday morning, she said she had yet to receive any official notice.