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By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - A delegation of senior U.S. officials, pursuing a new dialogue, met with Myanmar's military rulers on Tuesday in the highest-level talks with the reclusive junta in 14 years.
The move by President Barack Obama's administration to engage the junta appeared focussed on pushing for free and fair elections next year, although analysts said the rapprochement was as much about geopolitics and the growing regional influence of China.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell led the U.S. delegation meeting the junta in its new capital, Naypyidaw, before travelling to Yangon for talks with detained Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly characterized the trip as "basically ... a fact-finding mission" aimed at advancing the newly agreed dialogue between the two countries.
"Today, they met with ministers of the Burmese government and with various individuals affiliated with the regime," he said. "Tomorrow they plan to meet with some representatives from the opposition, with the prime minister and also with Aung San Suu Kyi."
"They're basically in kind of an information gathering mode. They laid out the way we see this relationship going forward, how we should structure this dialogue. But they were mainly in a listening mode today," Kelly said.
The United States said little before the two-day visit, seen as exploratory dialogue to gauge how sincere Myanmar's distrustful generals are about democratic reforms.
"The U.S. wants to suss out whether or not they have a genuine dialogue partner," said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar analyst at Australia's Macquarie University.
"The overtures towards warming ties with the U.S. have come from officials lower down and the U.S. is trying to get a feel for how committed the generals are."
Campbell met Myanmar's minister of science, technology and labour in New York in September after Washington announced it would pursue deeper engagement to try to spur reform.
Campbell has rejected calls by critics to ease restrictions on trade and investment in the former Burma, insisting dialogue would "supplement rather than replace the sanctions regime."
A government source in Naypyidaw said Campbell, the most senior U.S. official to visit Myanmar since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1995, was expected to meet with ministers and senior junta figures, including Prime Minister Thein Sein.
"But he's not likely to meet the senior general," said the source, referring to Than Shwe, who heads the junta and has led the country for the last 17 years.
Critics of Myanmar's rulers say they could be using the U.S. visit to try to give legitimacy to the junta's own democratic "road map" and show China, it's main ally and economic lifeline, that it is not its only friend.
Than Shwe's snub is being seen as an indicator of the generals' commitment towards reforms and a sign of whether the U.S. engagement can really be effective.
"Avoiding Campbell means the senior general is not ready to compromise. I think he will fall short of the expectations of the new U.S. administration," said a retired civil servant in Yangon.
Thakhin Chan Tun, a retired diplomat, added: "We can't expect any tangible immediate results ... Than Shwe is the one who makes all the decisions on all important policy issues."
Some analysts say that Myanmar's ties with China have been strained over instability along their common border and the generals are keen to reduce their reliance on Beijing while seeking to shore up ties with India, Russia and their Southeast Asian allies.
"Burma's ties with China may have been exaggerated and it might want to show that it can function independently," said Christopher Roberts at the University of Canberra.
Campbell is due to meet on Wednesday with Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the last 20 years in some form of detention. The junta last month allowed her to meet Western diplomats to discuss sanctions on the country.
(Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty and David Alexander; Editing by Ron Popeski and Chris Wilson)