YANGON - Seething crowds of Buddhist monks and civilians filled the streets of Myanmar's main city on Wednesday, defying warning shots, tear gas and baton charges meant to quell the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years.
Two monks and a civilian were killed, hospital and monastery sources said, as decades of pent-up frustration at 45 years of unbroken military rule in the former Burma produced the largest crowds yet during a month of protests.
Some witnesses estimated 100,000 people took to the streets on Wednesday despite fears of a repeat of the ruthless suppression of Myanmar's last major uprising, in 1988, when soldiers opened fire, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
"They are marching down the streets, with the monks in the middle and ordinary people either side. They are shielding them, forming a human chain," one witness said over almost deafening roars of anger at security forces.
As darkness fell, however, people dispersed ahead of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The streets were almost deserted.
In the second city of Mandalay, also under curfew, the Asian Human Rights Commission said there was no opposition to 10,000 protesting against grinding poverty. Five decades ago, the country was regarded as one of Asia's brightest prospects. Now it is one of its most desperate.
In the northwest coastal town of Sittwe, which has seen some of the biggest crowds outside Yangon, residents said 10,000 took to the streets on Wednesday, the Buddhist holy day.
World leaders again appealed again to the junta to exercise restraint over the protests that started against fuel prices rises last month and erupted into a major revolt after soldiers fired shots over monks in the town of Pakokku on September 5.
Commenting on reports of deaths, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "If these stories are accurate, the U.S. is very troubled that the regime would treat the Burmese people this way."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for an immediate U.N. Security Council meeting, vowing "no impunity" for human rights violators in the country, while Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said he would ask the European Union to hold an urgent meeting to seek ways to "halt the violence".
Singapore also called for restraint. The city state is current chairman of a Southeast Asian grouping that is one of the few such bodies to have isolated Myanmar as a member.
In neighboring Thailand, the army was preparing C-130 planes to airlift its citizens from Yangon if the violence escalated, and troops on the border were braced for a flood of refugees.
In the afternoon, riot police fired tear gas at columns of monks trying to push their way past barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest shrine and the starting point of more than a week of marches.
"We cannot know if many people were injured but we can be sure that blood was spilled," French diplomat Emmanuel Mouriez, who is stationed in Myanmar, told French radio RTL.
"We have several witnesses who speak of people on the floor. There were some monks who were beaten up."
As many as 200 maroon-robed monks were arrested at the gilded shrine as the Buddhist priesthood, the country's highest moral authority, went head-to-head with the might of the military.
"This is a test of wills between the only two institutions in the country that have enough power to mobilize nationally," said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official who worked in Myanmar.
"Between those two institutions, one of them will crack," he said. "If they take overt violence against the monks, they risk igniting the population against them."
The junta, whose leaders remain hunkered down in a new capital 250 miles to the north, had tried to keep the monks off the streets, sending trucks of soldiers and police to block six activist monasteries early in the morning.
The generals also rounded up more prominent dissidents, including comedian Za Ga Na, who had urged people to take to the streets.
Ranks of riot police remained outside the lakeside home of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to ensure no attempt was made to pluck the 62-year-old Nobel laureate from house arrest.
China, the closest the junta has to a friend, has been making an effort recently to let the generals know how worried the international community is, a Beijing-based diplomat said, although it has refrained from public pressure.
Representatives of Myanmar's pro-democracy and ethnic groups told Reuters Chinese officials had been meeting quietly with them behind the scenes for months, partly hedging their bets in their resource-rich neighbor.
(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler in Bangkok)
© 2007 Reuters