The European Union lifted travel restrictions against Myanmar president Thein Sein and other top officials on Friday in a first step towards rewarding the government for democratic reforms after half a century of military rule.

The bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, also held out the prospect of a further easing of sanctions, which target nearly a thousand firms and institutions with asset freezes, impose restrictions on hundreds of officials and include an arms embargo and investment bans.

We have seen historic changes ... and we strongly encourage the authorities to continue this process, Ashton said in a statement.

By April, she said, EU governments will have held a review of their sanctions policy towards Myanmar and could take further steps, depending in part on the results of a parliamentary by-election.

I will visit (Myanmar) in April after the by-elections, by which time I hope we will have had the chance to complete the review and to have made decisions at an EU level to respond to what I hope will be continued progress, she said.

On Thursday, the World Bank said it was in the process of returning to Myanmar, underlining a growing acknowledgement in the West of the southeast Asian nation's efforts to emerge from decades of isolation.

Other multilateral lenders such as the Asian Development Bank have also taken preliminary steps towards resuming activities, while the United States has eased some restrictions.

CRACKDOWNS

EU sanctions were imposed after bloody military crackdowns on a pro-democracy movement, whose figurehead is Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, who was freed in 2010, has reversed her stance on boycotting the army-dominated political system following the reforms and will stand in the April polls.

Last March, a civilian administration took office in the former Burma after decades of army rule, although a new parliament is still dominated by military personnel and an army-backed party that won a general election in November 2010 amid opposition complaints of rigging.

But hundreds of political prisoners have been freed and the new government appears eager to repair relations with the West.

Myanmar's strategic location at a crossroads in Asia and its natural resources mean it has long been regarded as an investment opportunity by its neighbours, particularly China. Now the country, which missed out on Asia's economic boom, is being eyed with interest by Western investors.

Myanmar's ports on the Indian Ocean make it an important ally for Beijing. China's state energy group CNPC has started building a crude oil port there, part of a pipeline project aimed at cutting out the long detour oil cargoes take through the congested and strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.

Friday's easing of European travel bans affects 87 people, including Myanmar's vice-presidents, cabinet members and the speakers of the two houses of parliament and their families, along side the president. The officials remain subject to an EU asset freeze.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rosalind Russell)