Myanmar's junta arrested more people on Wednesday hours after the departure of a U.N. envoy who came to the country to try to end a ruthless crackdown on protests which sparked international outrage.

At least eight truckloads of prisoners were hauled out of downtown Yangon, the former Burma's biggest city and center of last week's monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship, witnesses said.

In one house near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in the devoutly Buddhist country and starting point for the rallies, only a 13-year-old girl remained. Her parents had been taken, she said.

"They warned us not to run away as they might be back," she said after people from rows of shop houses were ordered onto the street in the middle of the night and many taken away.

The crackdown continued despite some hopes of progress by U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari on his mission to persuade junta chief Than Shwe to relax his iron grip and open talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he met twice.

Singapore, chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Myanmar is a member, said it "was encouraged by the access and cooperation given by the Myanmar government to Mr Gambari".

Gambari, in Singapore on his way back to New York but unlikely to say anything publicly before speaking to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was expected to return to Myanmar in early November, U.N. sources said.

But there were no indications of how his mission and international pressure might change the policies of a junta which seldom heeds outside pressure and rarely admits U.N. officials.

"I don't expect much to come of this. I think the top leadership is so entrenched in their views that it's not going to help," said David Steinberg, a Georgetown University expert on Myanmar.

"They will say they are on the road to democracy and so what do you want anyway?", he added, referring to the junta's "seven-step road to democracy".

The first of the seven steps was completed in September with the end of an on-off, 14-year national convention which produced guidelines for a constitution that critics say will entrench military rule and exclude Suu Kyi from office.


The protests, the biggest challenge to the junta's power in nearly 20 years, began with small marches against shock fuel price rises in August and swelled after troops fired over the heads of a group of monks.

The junta says the monk-led protests -- which filled five city blocks -- were countered with "the least force possible" and Yangon and other cities had returned to normal.

It says 10 people were killed and describes reports of much higher tolls and atrocities as a "skyful of lies", but Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer agreed with other Western governments the real figure was much higher.

"It's hard to know, but it seems to me that the number of 30, which is the number we've officially been using, is likely to be an underestimate," he told Australian radio.

Still, the junta appears to believe it has suppressed the uprising and lifted the barricades around the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, the focal points of the protests, eased an overnight curfew by two hours and released some of the monks swept up in widespread raids on monasteries.

One young monk said 80 of the 96 taken from his monastery were allowed to return during Wednesday night after being threatened verbally but not physically during interrogation.

However, there was still a heavy armed presence on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, the second city, witnesses said.

The junta is also sending gangs through homes looking for monks in hiding, raids Western diplomats say are creating a climate of terror, and there was no let up in international anger at the harsh response to peaceful protests.

In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council, including China, the closest thing the regime has to an ally, condemned the junta's "violent repression".

It called on the generals to allow Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar, to visit for the first time in four years. He said thousands of people had been detained.

"Light must absolutely be shed on what happened," Pinheiro told the council, which adopted a resolution deploring beatings, killings and detentions. Myanmar said the hearing was being used by "powerful countries for political exploitation".

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations, Darren Schuettler in Bangkok)