Soldiers fire shots at Burmese protests

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Soldiers fired automatic weapons into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators today as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Burma's main city braved a crackdown that has drawn international appeals for restraint by the ruling military junta. Several people were reportedly killed, but the surrounding circumstances remained unclear.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press it had been informed that several people, including a Japanese man, were found dead at the site of the protests. The information was transmitted by Burma's Foreign Ministry to the Japanese Embassy in Rangoon. More than 600 Japanese are in Burma, the ministry said.

According to Japan's public broadcaster NHK, several people were hit by stray bullets fired by soldiers, and one of them - a person who appeared to be a photographer - was carrying a Japanese passport.

Meanwhile, witnesses told The Associated Press that five men were arrested and severely beaten after soldiers fired into a crowd on the east side of downtown Rangoon. The shooting happened after several thousand protesters ignored an order from security forces to disband.

In other parts of the city, thousands of protesters ran through the streets after warning shots were fired into crowds that had swollen to 70,000. Bloody sandals were left lying in the road.

Protesters shouted at the soldiers, angry about early morning raids by security forces on Buddhist monasteries. Soldiers reportedly beat up and arrested more than 100 monks, who have spearheaded the largest challenge to the junta since a pro-democracy uprising was brutally suppressed in 1988.

"Give us freedom, give us freedom!" some demonstrators shouted at the soldiers, who by mid-afternoon had fanned out across the streets of Rangoon, the country's largest city.

The government said one man was killed in Rangoon on Wednesday when police opened fire during the ninth consecutive day of demonstrations, but dissidents outside Burma reported receiving news of up to eight deaths.

Some reports said the dead included monks, who are widely revered in the Buddhist nation and the emergence of such martyr figures could stoke public anger against the regime and escalate the violence.

Before dawn today, security forces raided several monasteries considered hotbeds of the pro-democracy movement.

A monk at Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery pointed to bloodstains on the concrete floor and said a number of monks were beaten and at least 100 of its 150 monks taken away in vehicles. Shots were fired in the air and tear gas was used against a crowd of about 1,500 supporters of the monks during the chaotic raid, he said.

"Soldiers slammed the monastery gate with the car, breaking the lock and forcing it into the monastery," said the monk, who did not give his name for fear of reprisals. "They smashed the doors down, broke windows and furniture. When monks resisted, they shot at the monks and used tear gas and beat up the monks and dragged them into trucks."

Empty bullet shells, broken doors, furniture and glass peppered the bloodstained, concrete floor of the monastery.

A female lay disciple said a number of monks also were arrested at the Moe Gaung monastery, which was being guarded by soldiers. Both monasteries are located in Rangoon's northern suburbs.

In Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, about 430 miles north of Rangoon, five army trucks with soldiers and three fire trucks were seen driving into the Mahamuni Pagoda, where hundreds of monks were locked inside by security forces.

Another 60 soldiers blocked the road to the pagoda from the centre of the city.

Led by thousands of monks in maroon robes, protesters have been demanding more democratic freedoms, the release of political activists and economic reforms in the impoverished nation. The protests, which began on 19 August, were initially sparked by high fuel prices but have been swelled by pent-up opposition to harsh military rule. Burma's state-run newspaper today blamed "saboteurs inside and outside the nation" for causing the protests in Rangoon, and said the demonstrations were much smaller than the foreign media were reporting.

"Saboteurs from inside and outside the nation and some foreign radio stations, who are jealous of national peace and development, have been making instigative acts through lies to cause internal instability and civil commotion," the government's New Light of Burma newspaper said.

The United States called on Burma's military leaders to open a dialogue with the protesters and urged China, Burma's main economic and political ally, to use its influence to prevent further bloodshed.

"We all need to agree on the fact that the Burmese government has got to stop thinking that this can be solved by police and military, and start thinking about the need for genuine reconciliation with the broad spectrum of political activists in the country," US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Beijing.