Yangon: Myanmar has agreed to release some 70 political prisoners, an official said on Tuesday, after President Thein Sein vowed to free all dissidents by the end of the year.
The move, the latest gesture of reform by the former general who has ushered in a period of sweeping change in the country, was greeted with caution by activists concerned that authorities are continuing to prosecute dissidents.
"The president has signed an amnesty for about 70 political prisoners around the country," presidential adviser Hla Maung Shwe, a senior official at the Myanmar Peace Center, told AFP.
Last week, during his first visit to London as part of a European tour aimed at burnishing Myanmar's international image, Thein Sein said there would be "no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar" by the end of the year.
Rights groups and officials estimate there were between around 100 and 150 political prisoners in Myanmar ahead of Tuesday's announcement.
Activists welcomed the release, but voiced concern over new arrests in the country.
"Even if we welcome this release, we are very concerned because of the new trials, they continue to send new (political prisoners) to jail," said Bo Kyi of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which collects data on imprisoned activists.
He said around 80 convicted dissidents remain behind bars, according to AAPP estimates, with a further 70 people awaiting trial.
One of those released in the amnesty, Brang Shawng, was only arrested last week in a camp for those internally displaced and held on suspicion of involvement with armed ethnic minority fighters from northern Kachin state.
Hla Maung Shwe said around 27 of those being released were rebels from Kachin, where the government is working on brokering a crucial ceasefire deal.
He said some prisoners had already been freed.
A spokesman for UN leader Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday: "The Secretary-General welcomes the release of 73 political prisoners in Myanmar and also the recent statement by President Thein Sein that all political prisoners in the country will be released by the end of the year.
"He hopes that these and other measures undertaken recently in the country's transition to democracy will further strengthen efforts toward a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire and national reconciliation in Myanmar."
The military junta, which ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for decades, had long denied the existence of political prisoners.
But hundreds of dissidents have been freed since Thein Sein took power two years ago. Last November he announced a review of all "politically concerned" cases.
Campaigners urged the government to go further.
"The president said in Britain that there would be no political prisoners at the end of this year. We would like to say that the promise needs to be implemented precisely," Myint Aung, a member of the Former Political Prisoners group, told AFP.