YANGON // Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi walked free on Saturday after seven years as a prisoner in her own home, calling on a sea of jubilant supporters to unite in the face of repression.
Waving and smiling, the Nobel Peace Prize winner appeared outside the crumbling lakeside mansion where she had been locked up by the military rulers, to huge cheers and clapping from the waiting crowds.
"We must work together in unison," she told thousands of waiting people, suggesting she has no intention of giving up her long fight for democracy in what is one of the world's oldest dictatorships.
Many people hugged each other with joy at the sight of the 65-year-old dissident, known in Myanmar simply as "The Lady". She wore a pale purple top and appeared in good health after her latest stretch of detention.
"I'm so glad to see her in person, but she looks older than before. The last time I saw her was in 2002," said one supporter, Htein Win.
Suu Kyi asked the crowd to come to her party's headquarters at noon on Sunday to hear her speak after she struggled to make herself heard over the roar of cheers, then went back inside her home as the crowds lingered outside.
World leaders were quick to welcome her release, with US President Barack Obama hailing her as "a hero of mine" and said it was time for the Myanmar junta to free all political prisoners.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said her release was "long overdue", while French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned any restrictions on her freedom would "constitute a new unacceptable denial of her rights".
Although she has been sidelined and silenced by the junta -- occasionally released briefly only to be put back in confinement -- for many in the impoverished nation she still embodies hope of a better future.
"I think of her as my mother and also my sister and grandmother because she's the daughter of our independence leader General Aung San," said 45-year-old Naing Naing Win. "She has her father's blood."
Despite the risks of opposing the military regime in a country with more than 2,200 political prisoners, many supporters wore T-shirts bearing her image and the words: "We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi."
Undercover police were photographing and filming the crowds.
Myanmar's most famous dissident has been under house arrest since 2003 -- just one of several stretches of detention at the hands of the ruling generals.
Her sentence was extended last year over a bizarre incident in which an American swam uninvited to her lakeside home, sparking international condemnation and keeping her off the scene for the first election in 20 years.
The democracy icon swept her party to victory in elections two decades ago, but it was never allowed to take power.
Her release comes just days after the first vote in the country since 1990, which was boycotted by Suu Kyi's party and was widely decried in the West as a sham.
When last released in 2002 she drew huge crowds wherever she went -- a reminder that years of detention had not dimmed her immense popularity.
Some fear that junta chief Than Shwe will continue to put restrictions on the freedom of his number one enemy.
But her lawyer 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 regime's orders.
Her struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta refused him a visa to see his wife.
She has not seen her two sons for about a decade and has never met her grandchildren.
Her youngest son Kim Aris, 33, arrived in Bangkok ahead of her release but it was unclear whether he would be allowed to visit his mother.
Suu Kyi's freedom is seen by observers as an effort by the regime to tame international criticism of Sunday's election, the first since the 1990 vote.
Western nations and pro-democracy activists have blasted the poll as anything but free and fair following widespread reports of intimidation and fraud.
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.