Red Cross seeks access to Burma protest detainees

GENEVA - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday it was seeking access to thousands of people detained during the recent crackdown in Burma, though authorities there had not yet agreed to talks.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC's director of operations, said the humanitarian agency has not yet been able to re-establish a meaningful dialogue with the ruling generals that have restricted its activities over the past two years.

At least 10 people were killed and many were arrested during last month's suppression of pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. Burma police are still raiding homes and arresting activists.

"The ICRC is deeply worried about the fate of thousands of people who have reportedly been arrested in connection with recent events in Burma," Kraehenbuehl said in a statement.

The Swiss-based agency wants access to the detainees "to assess their conditions of treatment and detention" and to help them contact loved ones.

Dozens of Burma families have contacted the ICRC for help finding relatives thought to have been detained or missing.

"We regret that our efforts have not yet produced any tangible results but we remain determined to pursue them," Kraehenbuehl said.

In late June, the neutral ICRC issued a rare public censure on Burma, accusing the junta of serious violations against civilians and prisoners who were forced to serve as army porters walking ahead of soldiers through minefields.

The agency said at the time that it had been unable to visit any of Burma's estimated 1,100 political prisoners since late 2005 because the authorities refused to allow its staff to conduct prison interviews in private.

The junta hit back, publicly accusing the ICRC of having secret ties to guerrillas seeking autonomy or independence.

The ICRC continues its physical rehabilitation services for amputees and mine victims in Burma and facilitates some family visits to detention centres, spokeswoman Carla Haddad said.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council asked Burma to let its investigator, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, to visit the country for the first time in four years. Pinheiro, who also wants full access to prisons and detention centres, has yet to be granted a visa.