Soldiers Open Fire At Myanmar Protests

YANGON, Myanmar (CBS/AP) -- Several people, including a Japanese national, have been found dead following protests in Myanmar, Japanese officials said Thursday, citing Myanmar officials.

Soldiers fired automatic weapons into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators Thursday as tens of thousands defied a crackdown that has drawn international appeals for restraint by the ruling military junta.

Witnesses told The Associated Press that after soldiers fired into a crowd near a bridge across the Pazundaung River on the east side of downtown Yangon, five men were arrested and severely beaten by soldiers.

Thousands of protesters ran through the streets after the shots rang out, and bloody sandals were left in the road. An estimated 70,000 anti-government demonstrators had gathered in Yangon Thursday.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official told the AP that they had been informed that several people, including a Japanese national, were killed.

Japanese Embassy officials in Yangon were trying to confirm the report, the Kyodo News Agency said, as Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported that one of the people struck and killed by the soldiers' bullets was a Japanese who appeared to be a photographer.

Protesters shouted at the soldiers, angry about early morning raids by security forces on Buddhist monasteries during which soldiers reportedly beat up and arrested more than 100 monks. "Give us freedom," they shouted.

Earlier Thursday morning, China called on all sides in Myanmar to exercise restraint and exhorted foreign media not to worsen the situation by exaggerating events.

"China hopes all parties can exercise restraint and properly handle the situation," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a media briefing. She said foreign reports risked "exaggerating and hyping up" the situation.

The unfolding crackdown by Myanmar's government against democracy demonstrators, many of them Buddhist monks, has put China in a difficult position.

The communist government has developed close diplomatic ties with Myanmar's government and is major trading partner and investor. But with the Beijing Olympics 11 months away, China has been fending off criticism that it shelters unpopular or abusive regimes around the world.

On Wednesday, security forces in Myanmar opened fire on demonstrators, and witnesses said police beat and dragged away dozens of Buddhist monks.

A news bulletin on Myanmar's state television, which is controlled by the ruling military junta, said one protester had been killed and three injured in the demonstrations that had also resulted in eight police officers being hurt.

The bulletin said Buddhist monks had forced people to take part in the recent protests and called on the public to make complaints to authorities if they were threatened by protesters.

Describing Wednesday's events, the bulletin said: "Security police force members retreated from the first security line to the second security line and again requested the mob to disperse peacefully without violence but the protesting group didn't follow the request." The broadcast also chided the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America for transmitting what it called a "skyfull of lies."

Dissident groups and media reported up to eight dead.

The military junta's announcement on state radio and television was the first acknowledgment that force has been used to suppress the protests and its first admission that blood had been shed after a month of mostly peaceful demonstrations.

The United States and the European Union condemned the attacks and called on the military rulers to open a dialogue with pro-democracy leaders, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to a joint statement on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The U.N. Security Council will hold closed consultations on Myanmar later Wednesday, said U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe.

About 300 monks and activists were arrested on the ninth straight day of anti-government protests in Yangon, dissidents said, although that number could not be independently confirmed.

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

The government said security forces opened fire after the crowd of 10,000 people, including "so-called monks," failed to disperse at Yangon's Sule Pagoda. It said the police used minimum force.

The dead man, aged 30, was hit by a bullet, the announcement said. It added that the wounded, two men aged 25 and 27, and a 47-year-old woman, were also hurt when the police fired, but did not specify their injuries.

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

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

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

The reports could not be independently confirmed by the AP.

The security forces had fired warning shots and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds of demonstrators while hauling away the defiant, cinnamon-robed monks into waiting military trucks - the first mass arrests since protests in this military dictatorship erupted Aug. 19. The monks are highly revered in Myanmar.

In its joint statement condemning the attack on protesters, the United States and the EU urged the Security Council to "discuss this situation urgently and consider further steps including sanctions.

Posted by LS

CBS and Associated Press contributed to this report