China has agreed to invite U.N. investigators into the country to examine allegations that it jails people without due process, restricts freedom of religion and allows torture in its prisons, a senior U.S. official said today.

The Chinese government has issued similar invitations before, only to back off by insisting on restrictions that U.N. investigators found unacceptable. But Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner, the State Department's top human rights official, said Chinese officials promised after two days of talks that they would set no conditions in advance of the U.N. visits this time.

"They made a point of it," he said. "I'm taking their word on this. We went over it and over it."

Craner said the unconditional invitations were the most significant result of this week's human rights talks between the United States and China. Despite pressure from the West, China has never allowed the U.N. special rapporteur on torture to conduct an investigation. It has been more than five years since China permitted visits by the U.N. rapporteur on religious freedom or the U.N. body that investigates arbitrary detention.

Craner said the Chinese government's sudden willingness to let in the U.N. investigators was the latest sign it is getting serious about improving its human rights record. Chinese officials appeared more willing to listen to criticism and suggestions during this week's talks than in the past, he added, saying: "They acknowledged problems that they have never acknowledged before."

But Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said it was too early to tell whether the invitations represented real progress.

"These kinds of invitations have been issued before, and on the follow through, China drags its feet," he said. "I hope this is a positive opening, but it's really quite premature to judge what this means."

China has invited the U.N. special rapporteur on torture to visit several times over the past few years, but no visit has taken place because the government has refused to go along with the rapporteur's requests for unmonitored prisoner interviews and unannounced visits to detention centers and police stations.

China routinely rejects criticism of its human rights record as bullying and interference in its internal affairs, but it has been holding regular human rights talks with the United States and other Western nations since the mid-1990s. Human rights groups have criticized the talks for allowing the Chinese government to appear responsive while doing little to improve conditions.

Craner said he emphasized in the meetings that the United States expects concrete results from the talks. The Bush administration agreed to hold them only after China released a handful of political prisoners on a U.S. list, and Craner presented a new list of 230 prisoners during the talks. He said he highlighted several prisoners as priority cases, including Xu Wenli, co-founder of the banned China Democracy Party, and Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur businesswoman from Xinjiang, the western region where China says it is fighting a war against Muslim terrorists.

Craner is scheduled to travel to Xinjiang on Wednesday, and he said he would raise concerns that China is using the war on terrorism as an excuse to intensify its crackdown on Uighurs, who favor greater autonomy for the region. He said he received only "scripted responses" when he raised the issue during talks in Beijing.