YANGON // Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is on the verge of being freed from house arrest, officials in the military-ruled country said on Friday as hundreds of her supporters gathered in anticipation.
Security was stepped up in Yangon, where Suu Kyi remained confined to her crumbling lakeside mansion, with police vehicles patrolling the city.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, locked up for most of the past two decades, is still seen as the biggest threat to the junta, but her freedom appears to be a price it is willing to pay to deflect criticism of recent elections.
"The authorities will release her. It is certain," a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lawyers for the 65-year-old dissident say her current term of house arrest started with her imprisonment on May 14 last year and is due to end on Saturday.
"She will be released for sure as planned," said another government official, who also declined to be named.
Suu Kyi's detention was extended by 18 months last year over a bizarre incident in which an American swam uninvited to her lakeside home, keeping her off the scene for the first election in 20 years.
About 600 supporters and onlookers gathered at her National League for Democracy, or NLD, party's headquarters on Friday, some wearing T-shirts bearing her image and the words "We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi."
Undercover police were photographing and filming outside the offices, where a banner hung alongside two portraits of the opposition leader read: "The time is here for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Some NLD members planned to donate blood to a local hospital to mark her release.
However, as night fell the supporters started to go home in response to a call from party leaders, who said they still had no word on the timing of her release, which an unnamed government official said would come on Saturday.
Her supporters said they expected her to be freed but were still awaiting confirmation from the authorities.
"They cannot extend her detention according to the law," said one of her lawyers, Nyan Win. "They should release her for the country."
The daughter of Myanmar's independence hero Gen. Aung San swept her party to victory in elections two decades ago, but the party was never allowed to take power.
When the soft-spoken but indomitable opposition leader was last released in 2002, she drew huge crowds wherever she went--a reminder that years of detention hadn't dimmed her immense popularity.
Some observers believe her release could come with restrictions to ensure she can't threaten the generals or the military-backed government to which they are preparing to hand over power.
However, Nyan Win has suggested she would refuse to accept any conditions on her release, as in the past when she tried in vain to leave Yangon in defiance of the junta's orders.
Although some see her as a figure from the past, sidelined by recent political developments, she remains idolised by many in the impoverished nation.
"I am praying for her to be released," said a 30-year-old taxi driver in Yangon, adding that Suu Kyi had "suffered enough".
Her freedom is seen by observers as an effort by the regime to tame international condemnation of Sunday's election, the first since the 1990 vote.
Western nations and pro-democracy activists have criticised the poll as anything but free and fair following widespread reports of intimidation and fraud.
However, key ally China along with Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors have welcomed the vote as a step towards democracy, and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Friday that freeing Suu Kyi "would ease pressure" on the junta.
The NLD's decision not to participate in the election deeply split Myanmar's opposition and Suu Kyi's party has been disbanded, leaving her future role uncertain.
The main army-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, says it has won 80 per cent of the seats in the election.
Partial official results show it has already secured a majority in the House of Representatives with 187 seats out of 219 counted so far, from the 326 that were available.
Another 110 seats in the 440-seat chamber were already reserved for the military, which together with its political proxy looks set to have a comfortable majority for passing laws.