'Internet cut' as Burma troops move into monasteries

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The Independent Online

Burmese troops occupied key Buddhist monasteries today to confine monks who have spearheaded anti-government protests.

Concerns were raised they may be preparing to intensify a deadly crackdown on civilians. The moves came as residents said the government appeared to have cut access to the internet, which has played a crucial role in telling the world about the pro-democracy protests.

At least 10 people have been killed in two days of violence in the country's largest cities, including a Japanese cameraman who was shot when soldiers with automatic rifles fired into crowds demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.

Exile groups say the toll could be much higher.

Daily demonstrations by tens of thousands have grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began on August 19 with rallies against a fuel price increase, then escalated dramatically when monks began joining the protests.

Hundreds of people have been arrested, taken away in trucks at night or pummelled with batons, witnesses and diplomats said, with the junta ignoring international appeals for restraint.

The US imposed new sanctions on a dozen senior Burmese officials, including the junta's two top generals, and again urged China as Burma's main economic and political ally to use its influence to prevent further bloodshed.

Southeast Asian nations also expressed their "revulsion" and told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution," with pro-democracy demonstrations held or planned in several cities across the region.

But by Burmese standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks, who are highly revered in the deeply Buddhist nation, could trigger a maelstrom of fury.

Southeast Asian envoys were told by authorities today that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors.

Gates were locked and key intersections near monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay were sealed off with barbed wire, and the streets were quiet in the two cities early today. There was no sign of monks.

Getting the monks out of the way raised concerns that the government now would feel emboldened to take tougher measures against remaining protesters, the diplomat said.

Yesterday was the bloodiest day in more than a month of protests - which at their height have brought an estimated 70,000 demonstrators to the streets.

Truckloads of troops in riot gear also raided Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said.

Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis, prompting many governments to urge the junta in Burma to end the violence.

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as tomorrow, one Western diplomat said.

Though some analysts said negotiations were unlikely, the diplomat said the decision to let Gambari in "means they may see a role for him and the United Nation in mediating dialogue with the opposition and its leaders" .

The protesters won support from countrymen abroad as more than 2,000 Burmese immigrants rallied peacefully in Malaysia, chanting slogans of support for Buddhist monks and other pro-democracy demonstrators. Riot police backed by trucks mounted with water cannons stood watch in Kuala Lumpur's diplomatic enclave.

Smaller rallies took place in Thailand and Indonesia.

The UN Human Rights Council is to hold an emergency session on Burma after a petition led by Western countries gained the support of a third of the body's 47 nations.

The council has so far held three special meetings to examine alleged Israeli human rights violations and one to look at the situation in Darfur since replacing the Human Rights Commission last year.