Violent crackdown launched in Burma

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Burma's ruling junta said its security forces opened fire today on demonstrators who failed to disperse, killing one person.

Witnesses said police beat and dragged away dozens of Buddhist monks in the most violent crackdown in a series of anti-government protests that began a month ago.

While dissident groups reported as many as five dead, including monks, the government's announcement on state radio and television was the first acknowledgment that force has been used to suppress the protests and the first admission that blood had been shed. The dissidents also said about 300 monks and activists were arrested.

The European Union and the United States condemned attacks on demonstrators in Burma today and called on the country's military rulers to stop the violence and open a dialogue with pro-democracy leaders.

In a joint statement issued after a meeting of EU and US foreign ministers, the officials urged the UN Security Council to "discuss this situation urgently and consider further steps including sanctions."

Burma's government said the security forces fired after the crowd of 10,000 people, including "so-called monks," failed to disperse at Rangoon's Sule Pagoda. It said the police used "minimum force" after members of the crowd tried to grab their guns.

The dead man, aged 30, was hit by a bullet, the announcement said.

It said the wounded, two men aged 25 and 27, and a 47-year-old woman, were not hurt by gunshots but rather from being caught in the melee.

Witnesses known to The Associated Press said they saw two women and one young man with gunshot wounds in the chaotic confrontations.

Reports from exiled Burma journalists and activists in Thailand said security forces had shot and killed as many as five people in Rangoon. The reports could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press.

Zin Linn, information minister for the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which is Burma's self-styled government-in-exile, said at least five monks were killed, while an organisation of exiled political activists in Thailand, the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area said three monks had been confirmed dead, and about 17 wounded.

Exiled Burma media reported similar figures, citing witnesses.

Khim Maung Win, deputy editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, said eight people — five monks and three civilians — were reported killed in the conflict and at least four seriously injured.

The security forces fired warning shots and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds of demonstrators while hauling away defiant Buddhist monks into waiting trucks — the first mass arrests since protests in this military dictatorship erupted on 19 August.

About 300 monks and activists were arrested across Rangoon after braving government orders to stay home, according to an exile dissident group, and reporters saw a number of cinnamon-robed monks, who are highly revered in Burma, being dragged into military trucks.

"If these stories are accurate, the US is very troubled that the regime would treat the Burmese people this way," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Washington. "We call on the junta to proceed in a peaceful transition to democracy."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the military regime to be restrained in reacting to protests.

"The whole world is now watching," Brown told reporters. "I hope the Security Council will meet immediately, meet today and discuss this issue and look at what can be done."

The junta had banned all public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a night-time curfew following eight days of anti-government marches led by monks across the country in the largest protests in nearly 20 years.

As the ninth consecutive day of unrest began, about 10,000 monks and students along with members of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party set off from the golden hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda to the Sule Pagoda in the heart of Rangoon, but were blocked by military trucks along the route.

Other blocs of marchers fanned out into downtown streets with armed security forces attempting to disperse them. There were reports of destruction of property but it was unclear whether this was carried out by the demonstrators or pro-junta thugs, who were seen among the troops and police. Witnesses said an angry mob at the pagoda burned two police motorcycles.

"They will kill us, monks and nuns. Maybe we should go back to normal life as before," said a young nun, her back pressed against the back of a building near the scenes of chaos. But a student at a roadside watching the arrival of the demonstrators said, "If they are brave, we must be brave. They risk their lives for us."

The two asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.

Other protesters carried flags emblazoned with the fighting peacock, a key symbol of the democracy movement in Burma.

Burma's leaders warned monks to stop the protests after some 100,000 people joined marches in Rangoon on Monday in the largest anti-government demonstrations since a 1988 pro-democracy uprising was violently suppressed.

The junta imposed the 9pm to 5am curfew and ban on public assembly after 35,000 people monks and their supporters defied the warnings to stage another day of protests Tuesday.

The demonstrations started 19 August after the government hiked fuel prices in one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military rule that has gripped the country since 1962.

In Mandalay, Burma's second largest city, more than 800 monks, nuns and laymen played a cat-and-mouse game with some 100 soldiers who tried to stop them marching from the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, which they had tried to enter earlier.