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january 13, 2013 • 01:29 PM

ICRC head in Myanmar to gain access to prisons, conflict zones

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), looks on during a news conference in Geneva September 7, 2012.
Foto: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) arrived in Myanmar on Sunday to set up inspections of its prisons and seek access to conflict-hit border areas, the humanitarian agency said on Sunday.

The surprise six-day visit, the first by an ICRC president, follows an announcement by President Thein Sein's office last November that authorities would allow ICRC officials to visit detention centers, it said.

"Myanmar's government has signaled its readiness to discuss a number of humanitarian issues with us. This is a significant step forward in our dialogue and in strengthening our relationship with the Myanmar authorities," ICRC President Peter Maurer said in a statement.

Maurer is due to hold talks with Thein Sein and other members of the new quasi-civilian government in the capital Naypyitaw on Monday.

"The talks are expected to focus on the recent announcement by the government that it will allow our staff to visit detention places," Maurer, a Swiss citizen, said.

ICRC officials visit prisoners worldwide to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention. In exchange for access, its confidential findings are shared only with authorities.

"We have the green light. We expect pilot visits to start quite soon," ICRC spokesman Philippe Stoll told Reuters.

Myanmar released dozens more political detainees during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama last November.

Western countries suspended most sanctions as a reward for political, social and economic reforms after the new government took power in March 2011 after decades of military rule.

The ICRC said it was also seeking broader access to provide aid to conflict areas such as Kachin and Kayin states, which border China and Thailand, respectively.

China has sent soldiers to its border with Myanmar amid concern that escalating violence between the Southeast Asian country's government and ethnic separatists is spilling over, an official Chinese newspaper reported on Friday.

The 18-month conflict between rebels and government forces in Kachin state is one of the biggest tests for Myanmar's reform effort and the use of aircraft has raised doubts about whether the retired generals in the government have really changed their harsh ways.

Maurer also plans to visit the western state of Rakhine, where the ICRC has been providing assistance to the sick, wounded and displaced people caught up in sectarian violence between minority Rohingyas and majority Buddhists.

"Both the ICRC and the Myanmar Red Cross Society are evacuating patients who cannot reach health facilities on their own and administering first aid to the injured. In addition, the ICRC is renovating sanitary facilities and supplying water in camps housing displaced people," the ICRC said on Sunday.

In an outbreak of sectarian violence in October 2012, Buddhist monks openly incited mobs in Rakhine to attack Muslim Rohingyas. The conflict has left Muslims elsewhere in Myanmar fearing for their own safety.

At least 600 Rohingyas believed to be illegal migrants from Myanmar have been detained in Thailand, police there said on Friday.

An estimated 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar but are officially stateless. The Myanmar government denies them citizenship, regarding them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, but Bangladesh does not recognize them as citizens either.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Roger Atwood)

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