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Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released from house arrest.

After days of speculation and months of secret negotiations with the ruling military government, Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared in public for the first time in 18 months. Thousands of supporters mobbed her as she arrived at the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the Nobel Peace Prize winner said her release was unconditional and she was free to go anywhere she wanted.

"I hope to be able to carry out all my duties for my party and my country in the best possible way," she said.

But Aung San Sui Kyi made it clear she regarded the military government's decision to free her as only the beginning of a political process. "My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom - that would be the major breakthrough".

Asked when she believed democracy would come to her homeland, she replied: "I hope not in too many more years."

U2's Grammy winning song Walk On is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi and her face appears in the video for the track.

Aung San Suu Kyi has long symbolised the struggle of Burma's people to be free. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82% of the seats in the 1990 election yet the military refused to transfer power to Burma's democratically elected leaders.

Under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi's movements have been severely restricted, her phone frequently cut and she was prevented from seeing her family. Hundreds of her supporters have been detained, many suffering torture and in some cases death.

Her message is a simple one - that only by fighting fear can you truly be free.

One celebrating supporter, who did not want to be named for fear of government retribution, said: "I am very proud of her. She is our national heroine. Now Burma is very poor but when she rules our country I think it will become better."

The generals who rule Burma have yet to spell out any plans to share power with the opposition and commentators belileve the challenge facing Aung San Suu Kyi is to persuade the military to relinquish its grip after 40 years.

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