Nine killed in Myanmar protest crackdown

YANGON (Reuters) - Soldiers and police fired into crowds of demonstrators in Myanmar’s largest city and gave them 10 minutes to clear the streets or be shot on Thursday, with nine people killed in the second day of a crackdown on the largest uprising in 20 years.

Far fewer demonstrators took to the streets as the military junta clamped down and soldiers raided monasteries in the middle of the night, rounding up hundreds of the monks who had been leading protests.

State television said at least nine people were killed.

As international concern mounted, U.S. President George W. Bush called on all countries with influence over Myanmar to tell the junta to stop using force, and met with China’s foreign minister to press the point.

“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 so long,” he said in a statement.

China, which neighbors Myanmar and is one of the military-ruled country’s few allies, is a key trading partner and arms supplier to Myanmar and is seen as the linchpin for any international effort to defuse the situation.

One of the dead was a Japanese photographer, shot when soldiers cleared the area near Sule Pagoda -- a focus of the protests -- as loudspeakers blared out warnings, ominous reminders of the crushing of a 1988 uprising in which more than 3,000 people were killed.

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In another area of Yangon, soldiers opened fire into crowds after a military truck drove into protesters, onlookers said. Three people were killed on the spot.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in an unusually blunt statement, demanded member Myanmar stop using violence and voiced “revulsion” at the killings.

At Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, 200 soldiers marched toward the crowd and riot police clattered their rattan shields with wooden batons. “It’s a terrifying noise,” one witness said.

The army moved in after 1,000 chanting protesters hurled stones and water bottles at troops, prompting a police charge in which shots were fired.

The crackdown in the country of 56 million people began on Wednesday when soldiers and police fired tear gas, clubbed protesters and arrested up to 200 monks in an attempt to quash the uprising.

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Sporadic marches against fuel price hikes have swelled over the past month into mass demonstrations against 45 years of military rule in the former Burma. It is the worst unrest to hit the poor and isolated nation since the rebellion by students and monks in 1988.

Troops dispersing crowds on Thursday chased fleeing people, beating anybody they could catch, witnesses said.

Another Buddhist monk -- adding to the five reported killed Wednesday -- was killed during the midnight raids on monasteries, witnesses said.

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Monks were kicked and beaten as soldiers rounded them up and shoved them onto trucks.

“Doors of the monasteries were broken, things were ransacked and taken away,” a witness said. “It’s like a living hell seeing the monasteries raided and the monks treated cruelly.”

After darkness fell and curfew hour loomed, sporadic bursts of rifle fire echoed over Yangon, a city of 5 million.

The junta told diplomats summoned to its new jungle capital, Naypyidaw, “the government was committed to showing restraint in its response to the provocations,” one of those present said.

In a sign the junta may be hearing the international outcry over its clampdown, Myanmar’s rulers later in the day agreed to receive a U.N. envoy to discuss the crisis.

The United States announced sanctions against senior junta figures and sought to rally broad international condemnation.

Bush asked Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi “to help bring a peaceful transition to democracy in Burma,” the White House said.

China has said it is “extremely concerned” about the situation and has urged all parties to “maintain restraint,” but has not given any sign it is willing to go further in pressuring the Myanmar government.

Bush thanked China for helping to win Myanmar’s consent to a visit by U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.

ASEAN ministers, meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, “expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force.”

All members except Myanmar issued the statement. The 10-member diplomatic and trade group holds as a core principle non-interference in one another’s internal affairs.

ASEAN made no mention of punitive measures against the military government that has ruled Myanmar since 1962.