YANGON, Myanmar – Mounting pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks against Myanmar's military government erupted into serious bloodshed for the first time Wednesday, as security forces shot dead at least one man and wounded more in chaotic confrontations in the country's biggest city.
The violence riveted world attention on the junta and its democratic opponents — thanks largely to dramatic images covertly transmitted abroad — but left unsettled who would prevail in the struggle, and at what cost.
Despite being bloodied, the monks said they would carry on demonstrating in what have become the biggest and most sustained anti-government protests since a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988, when soldiers shot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, killing thousands.
There were no indications Wednesday that the government had any intention either of backing down, with unconfirmed reports saying it had extended a newly imposed 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew to 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Another order that had been issued Tuesday night, barring the assembly of more than five persons, was ignored by the general public as well as protesters.
While a confrontation had been expected, the emergence of a possible martyr figure for the protesters adds a very volatile factor. If, as some reports say, monks were also killed, public anger could become uncontrollable, raising the prospect of escalating violence.
A deadlock at home could also mean that international pressure - especially from the junta's chief economic and diplomatic ally, China — could play a pivotal role.
The European Union and the United States condemned the attacks on demonstrators in Myanmar Wednesday 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 U.S. foreign ministers, the officials urged the U.N. Security Council to "discuss this situation urgently and consider further steps including sanctions."
While Wednesday's violence fell short of full-scale street-fighting, defiant protesters and bystanders alike were able to make some security units beat a retreat by throwing bricks and bottles, leaving debris and broken glass scattered over some main downtown streets.
Facing a line of soldiers at one point, demonstrators tried to shame them by chanting "You are the army of the people, we are feeding you, be just to us."
When words failed to move the group of about 70 troops and personnel manning two fire engines used for crowd control, the crowd began pelting them with stones, and they made way to allow the demonstrators through, many of them monks headed back to their monasteries.
Myanmar's government said the security forces fired 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" after members of the crowd tried to grab their guns.
The dead man, aged 30, was hit by a bullet, said the announcement, read out Wednesday night on state radio and television.
It said 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 known to the AP said they saw two women and one young man with gunshot wounds..
Reports from exiled Myanmar journalists and activists in Thailand said security forces had shot and killed as many as eight people in Yangon. The reports could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press.
Khim Maung Win, deputy editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma — an opposition-run shortwave radio service based in Norway — said eight people — five monks and three civilians — were reported killed in the conflict and at least four seriously injured.
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.
Such reports, as well as photos and video taken covertly and then transmitted over the internet and by other means, have helped keep the momentum of the protests going, as news sent out and the retransmitted back into the country gives lie to the picture put out by state controlled media, which usually ignores opposition activities when it doesn't denigrate them
As Yangon's 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 Yangon, 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.
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 against the military dictatorship erupted Aug. 19.
About 300 monks and activists were arrested across Yangon 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 Myanmar, being dragged into military trucks.
"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.
As one of the several marches headed downtown was broken up, bystanders helped monks escape. They stopped taxis and other vehicles in mid-street, paid the drivers with money out of their own pockets and hustled the monks inside.
The residents, mostly women, shouted, anxiously "Go, go, go, run!"
Some protesters carried flags emblazoned with the fighting peacock, a key symbol of the democracy movement in Myanmar.
Myanmar's leaders warned monks to stop the protests after some 100,000 people joined marches in Yangon on Monday.
The demonstrations started 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, Myanmar'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.