Burmese security forces fired directly on protesting monks and other demonstrators in Rangoon on Wednesday, reportedly killing five monks and one woman in separate Rangoon clashes, according to unconfirmed reports.

Monks praying in front of armed troops in Rangoon, September 26, 2007 [Photo: Reuters]

On-the-scene reports to The Irrawaddy said the monks died when troops and security forces opened fire on at least two separate demonstrations. Troops reportedly fired over the heads of protesters on some occasions and fired directly at protestors on other occasions.

The reports of deaths and injuries were impossible to confirm on Wednesday.

The deaths reportedly occurred as different columns of monks walked through the city on Wednesday.

Nyan Win, a National League for Democracy spokesperson, said he heard reports that three monks and one woman had been killed by gunfire.

AFP, the French news agency, reported Wednesday night that at least two Burmese officials said three monks were dead. The AFP report said one monk died as he tried to take a weapon away from a soldier, and two others were beaten to death.

In the military-ruled government of Burma, information is severely restricted and accurate reports of the number of dead and injured are difficult to verify.

Witnesses said the military government fired at protesters, hurled tear gas and wielded batons to break up protests in Rangoon. In Mandalay, shots were fired over the heads of protestors.

In both cities, security forces rounded up and arrested many protest leaders and others, according to sources on the scene.

During Wednesday morning, military forces and police in Rangoon blocked the road to Shwedagon Pagoda and confronted thousands of monks and civilians who gathered outside the pagoda, one of the holiest sites in Burma.

On Wednesday afternoon, protesters and security forces also clashed again near Shwedagon Pagoda and later on a road leading to Sule Pagoda.

Dozens of protesters and activists including members of the NLD, protesting Buddhist monks and other protest leaders were arrested throughout the day at different areas in Rangoon, in Mandalay and in Kachin state.

In Rangoon, two well-known activists, the veteran politician Amyotheryei Win Naing and the popular Burmese comedian Zarganar, were arrested overnight on Tuesday.

The well-known Burmese actor Kyaw Thu and the poet Aung Win are being sought by authorities for their role in aiding monks in recent days, according to sources.

In Mandalay, security forces fired warning shots and used teargas to break up an estimated 10,000 protesting monks who marched through the city, according to local residents.  one source said that after troops fired warning shots over the heads of the monks, they continued on with their march.

Also in Mandalay, three members of the NLD, Tin Aung, Khin Maung Thaung and Myo Naing, and well-known comedian Par Par Lay, were arrested on Wednesday after they offered alms to monks.

In other areas, more than 200 monks in Myitkyina and Bamaw in Kachin state in northern Burma were arrested in a midnight raid on Tuesday. More monks in the area were detained on Wednesday morning, while others escaped and are in hiding. Many phone lines were cut off in the area, residents said.

The junta declared a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in Rangoon and Mandalay on Tuesday and banned any gathering of more than five people. Thousands of monks and citizens ignored the ban on Wednesday.

Security forces and police took up positions around Rangoon City Hall and many monasteries on Wednesday. Security was also increased in Pegu and Mandalay, in Sagaing Division and in Arakan, Mon and Kachin states.

The phone lines of many pro-democracy activists and many members of a volunteer medical team that has followed Rangoon demonstrations also have been cut off by the military government.