Soldiers fired machine guns and tear gas into massive crowds of demonstrators in Burma's largest city on Thursday, reportedly killing nine people and wounding 11 others in a crackdown on anti-government protests that havegripped the isolated country for almost two weeks.
Ye Htut, a spokesman for the ruling military junta, said riot police clashed with anti-government protesters in Rangoon on Thursday, killing nine people and injuring 11.
Thirty-one government troops were also injured, he said.
Themilitary's use of deadly forceagainst Buddhist monks and their supporters has drawn fierce condemnation from the international community,as well asacall for "restraint" for the first time Thursdayfrom the Burmese junta's traditional ally and trading partner,China.
Thursday's gunshots sent people fleeing through the streets of Rangoon, while at least 100 protesters were seized by soldiers and carted off in trucks.
Among the dead in today's clashes is Kenji Nagai, 50, a journalist covering the protests inRangoon for Japanese video news agency APF News. He was confirmed dead after his father and company representative identified him in a photo.
The crowds,estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000 people,swelled Thursday after the military made sweeping arrests of hundreds of Burmese monks shortly before dawn.
Soldiers reportedly broke into monasteries in the city of Rangoon and elsewhere, and took awaymonks who have been part of a protest movement that has led anti-government demonstrations for 11 straight days in Burma, a poor southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar.
Some of the Buddhist monks were beaten during the arrests, eyewitnesses said.
Ally China urges 'restraint'
Most foreign journalists have been barred fromBurma and thegovernment is now consideringcurbing cellphone and internet access in the country, the CBC's Michael MacAuliffe reported fromBangkok, in neighbouring Thailand.
Reports of the violence are coming from eyewitnesses who are calling reporters abroad and sending photographs and videos by theinternet, said Burmese exile Kyan Moe, who now lives in Ottawa.
"We have a lot of citizen reporters helping us to get the message out," he told CBC News on Thursday. "They are very committed.… The public anger is growing."
The international community has sought China'shelp to use its influence overBurma's military regime toquell the violent clampdown. On Wednesday, China and Russia used their veto powers in the United Nations Security Council toblock U.S. and European efforts to condemn the military's actions.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing on Thursday that "China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated."
Burma's foreign ministerinformed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon thatthe governmentwill allowUN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari into the country to investigate the situation, the UN said.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Departmentimposed economic sanctions against 14senior Burmese officials, includingthe junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, and the No. 2 man in the military regime, Deputy Senior Gen. Maung Aye.
"Every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under a brutal military regime like the one that has ruled Burma for too long," U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement.
Standoffs in front of monasteries
While protesters came under fire in downtown Rangoon, in front of the Sule Pagoda, monks gathered at the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery eight kilometres away were surrounded by at least 250 pro-government supporters armed with bamboo poles.
Standoffs were also reported in the city of Mandalay, while witnesses said five men were arrested and severely beaten as soldiers moved in on a crowd gathered near a bridge east of downtown Rangoon.
The demonstrations, led by the country's revered monks,have been staged daily since Sept. 17, as protesters demand more democratic freedom, the release of political activists and economic reforms in a country that has been ruled by a military junta in one form or another since 1962.
The demonstrations were sparked by the government's decision in August to double the price of fuel, bringing more hardship to the impoverished country.
Initially the government handled the protests with restraint, but Wednesday, soldiers moved into the crowd and media reports said between two and eight monks were killed. The government has acknowledged that one man died.
The government Tuesday night banned public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a 9 p.m. curfews.
The first mass arrests came Wednesday, with well-known anti-government figures like comedian Zarganar carted away.
'Soldiers slammed the monastery gate with the car'
On Thursday morning, security forces raided at least four monasteries considered hotbeds of the pro-democracy movement.
"Soldiers slammed the monastery gate with the car, breaking the lock and forcing it into the monastery," said one monk at the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery as he pointed to bloodstains on the monastery floor, which was littered with broken doors, furniture and glass.
"They smashed the doors down, broke windows and furniture. When the monks resisted, they shot at the monks and used tear gas and beat up the monks and dragged them into trucks."
The monk, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal,said between 100 and 150 monks were taken away.
Freelance journalist Andrew Chant, speaking to CBC News from Bangkok, said the action against Buddhist monks, who are highly revered in Burma, will not be well-received in the country.
"This kind of action against the monks, and the brutality toward the monks will only enrage the population of Rangoon," he said.
Also Thursday, more than 100 soldiers surrounded the house of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest for several years. There were rumours she had been taken into custody, but an Asian diplomat speaking under condition of anonymity said she was still in her house.
Burma's state-run newspaper on Thursday blamed the media for exaggerating the size of the daily demonstrations and said Burma's unrest was fuelled by "saboteurs" inside and outside the country.
The last time Burma has seen such a scope of unrest was in 1988, when soldiers cracked down on a large pro-democracy demonstration in Rangoon. At least 3,000 people were killed.