YANGON, Myanmar – Security forces fired automatic weapons into thousands of pro-democracy protesters for a second day Thursday, and the military government said nine people were killed and 11 wounded.
Tens of thousands defied the ruling military junta's crackdown with a 10th straight day of demonstrations. Security forces also raided several monasteries overnight, beating monks and arresting more than 100, according to a monk at one monastery.
The protests were the stiffest challenge to the generals in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with protests over a fuel price hike and has drawn increasing international pressure on the isolated regime.
Ye Htut, a government spokesman, said the riot police clashed with anti-government protesters in the country's largest city Yangon, killing nine and injuring 11 people. Thirty-one government troops were also injured, he said.
Among the dead was Kenji Nagai, 50, a journalist covering the protests in Yangon for Japanese video news agency APF News. He was confirmed dead after his father and company representative identified him in a photo, a Japanese Embassy official in Myanmar told The Associated Press by telephone.
Nagai, who had been covering the protests since Tuesday, was one of several people found dead Thursday, according to Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, citing Myanmar officials.
Witnesses told the AP that five men were arrested and severely beaten after soldiers fired into a crowd near a bridge across the Pazundaung River on the east side of downtown Yangon.
In other parts of the city, some protesters shouted "Give us freedom, give us freedom!" at soldiers. Thousands ran through the streets after warning shots were fired into crowds that had swollen to 70,000. Bloody sandals were left lying in the road.
The monks have spearheaded the largest challenge to the military junta in the isolated Southeast Asian nation since a failed uprising in 1988. In that crisis, soldiers shot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, killing some 3,000 people.
The crisis has drawn increasing international pressure on the regime, especially from its chief economic and diplomatic ally, China.
"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," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday at a twice-weekly media briefing.
The United States called on Myanmar's military leaders to open a dialogue with peaceful protesters and urged China to do what it can to prevent further bloodshed.
"We all need to agree on the fact that the Burmese government has got to stop thinking that this can be solved by police and military, and start thinking about the need for genuine reconciliation with the broad spectrum of political activists in the country," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in Beijing.
Myanmar's state-run newspaper blamed "saboteurs inside and outside the nation" for causing the protests in Yangon, and said the demonstrations were much smaller than the media are reporting.
"Saboteurs from inside and outside the nation and some foreign radio stations, who are jealous of national peace and development, have been making instigative acts through lies to cause internal instability and civil commotion," The New Light of Myanmar, which serves as a mouthpiece for the military government said Thursday.
Also Thursday, security forces arrested Myint Thein, the spokesman for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, family members said.
Images of the protests have been transmitted by dissidents using cell phones and the Internet, focusing attention on the escalating faceoff.