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Security forces tighten grip in Myanmar

AFP, September 27, 2007

YANGON, Myanmar  -- Security forces swept through Yangon's city centre Thursday, arresting hundreds of people and warning of "extreme" action in a crackdown on protesters who took to the streets in their thousands.

<< Police standing in the middle of the street blocking the road to the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon.

Undeterred by the deaths a day earlier of at least four protesters, large crowds faced off against troops and police around the Buddhist Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon.

After earlier firing warning shots, troops issued an ultimatum threatening "extreme action" unless the protesters dispersed.

Thousands scattered in panic but at least 100 were arrested and thrown into military trucks after the ultimatum.

There were reports of tens of thousands more protesters in different parts of the city, remaining defiant against the regime.

It was the 10th straight day that large protests have erupted against the ruling military, which infuriated many people in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation by doubling fuel prices on August 15.

The mass protests have been led by lines of saffron-robed monks, but following overnight arrests and raids on monasteries only a handful of monks were spotted in the crowds on Thursday.

Pockets of people remained on balconies and bridges as soldiers and police worked systematically through the centre to ensure no protesters remained.

At least 10 more empty military trucks arrived near the pagoda, where the crowds earlier sang the national anthem and chanted slogans about independence hero General Aung San, father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Please go back home peacefully," soldiers shouted into loudspeakers.

Witnesses said at least two people were injured when security forces fired.

One fell to the ground and was dragged away by soldiers, and protesters were seen carrying another into a car.

Spearheaded by the revered Buddhist monks, the protests have drawn as many as 100,000 people onto the streets in the biggest challenge to the regime for 20 years.

The crackdown has triggered worldwide condemnation. The UN Security Council urged the regime to meet a UN envoy, and the European Union and United States said they were "deeply troubled."

China, Myanmar's biggest trading partner and chief ally, issued its first public call for the regime to show restraint, but did not directly condemn the crackdown.

Earlier Thursday security forces raided a monastery and arrested at least 100 Buddhist monks.

Witnesses said they stormed a monastery in eastern Yangon, where windows were smashed and bullet casings littered the ground.

At least 100 monks were believed taken. Some who avoided arrest returned after daybreak, bleeding from wounds to their shaven heads. Witnesses said a second monastery was also raided.

Officials of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to govern, said two senior members had been arrested.

Elsewhere, warning shots were fired as police clashed with the anti-military crowds in at least three areas in eastern Yangon after hundreds of supporters rushed to protect Buddhist monks being hauled away.

At least six truckloads of monks were seen driven from monasteries in what appeared like an attempt to stifle fresh protests.

Most shops and businesses had closed their doors fearing further violence, after security forces used baton charges, warning shots and tear gas Wednesday to try to break up protests.

Two monks were beaten to death, and a third was shot dead while wrestling with a soldier over his weapon, senior officials told AFP. A fourth person was shot dead, a hospital source said. More than 200 people were arrested.

It was the first time the military had used violence since the protests began, although there was no mass crackdown on the scale of 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed.

Thailand-based analyst Win Min, who fled the 1988 crackdown, predicted the movement would grow, saying pictures of security forces attacking monks would fuel anger.

"They also believe that this is the best chance ever since 1988" to bring democracy, he added.

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