updated 10/15/2007 2:50:52 PM ET 2007-10-15T18:50:52

Myanmar’s leading opposition party urged the ruling military junta Monday to free political detainees immediately, echoing a call by the United Nations’ special envoy who said reports of new arrests of dissidents were “extremely disturbing.”

More arrests, interrogations and acts of intimidation “run counter to the spirit of mutual engagement between the United Nations and Myanmar,” U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari said in Bangkok, Thailand.

“These actions must stop at once,” he said after meeting with Thailand’s foreign minister as he began a six-nation tour to seek Asia’s help in resolving the Myanmar crisis.

Myanmar’s regime also faced pressure from the European Union, where foreign ministers of the bloc’s member nations announced the threat of new sanctions while offering to hold off if the generals begin talks with pro-democracy groups.

The EU, which approved a ban on imports of Myanmar’s timber, gemstones and precious metals but not its oil and natural gas, also discussed a proposal from Britain to offer economic aid to Myanmar if the junta cooperates.

A State Department spokesman, however, said Myanmar’s continued crackdown on the opposition belied its talk of engaging in a dialogue following the bloody assault by security forces that ended mass protests last month.

“It’s hard to take it at its word when that is what you are doing. It’s a funny way of showing that you care,” spokesman Tom Casey said.

More arrests
The National League for Democracy, the country’s biggest opposition party and headed by detained Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, called on the junta to release political prisoners and stop the “torture” of Buddhist monks, nuns, students and others.

Its statement was issued as the military government continued rounding up people associated with last month’s democracy marches. Several thousand people are believed to have been detained, and there have been many reports of brutal treatment in custody.

A dissident group based in Thailand, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said last week that a National League for Democracy activist died from torture during interrogation after being arrested Sept. 26. The report could not be independently confirmed.

On Saturday, security forces arrested at least four political activists who had gone into hiding, Amnesty International said. They included three of the last activists still at large from the 88 Generation Students group, the country’s boldest dissident organization. It was one of the main forces behind more than a month of protests demanding an end to four decades of military rule.

Gambari, who met with Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram, called for the release of all political detainees and asked that the Red Cross be granted access to prisoners.

Gambari travels next to Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, India and China before returning to Myanmar. India and China are among the Myanmar junta’s biggest allies.

Junta rebuffs calls for reform
The U.N. has spearheaded an international effort to push Myanmar’s military, which has ruled since 1962, to halt its crackdown and start negotiations with Suu Kyi.

Earlier this month Gambari met with the junta’s leader, Gen. Than Shwe and urged the government to end its crackdown. He also met twice with Suu Kyi, but his negotiating efforts have failed to bring about dialogue between the regime and its opponents.

Myanmar’s military leaders have rebuffed calls for reforms, saying the only way to bring change is to follow the junta’s seven-step “road map” to democracy, which is supposed to culminate in an election at an unspecified future date.

So far, only the plan’s first stage — drawing up guidelines for a new constitution — has been completed, and that took more than a decade. Critics say the road map is a ruse to allow the military to stay in power.

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