RANGOON, Burma - Soldiers and police took control of the streets yesterday, firing warning shots and tear gas to scatter the few prodemocracy protesters who ventured out as Burma's military junta sealed off Buddhist monasteries and cut public Internet access.
On the third day of a harsh government crackdown, the streets were devoid of the mass gatherings that had peacefully challenged the regime daily for nearly two weeks, leaving only small groups of activists to be chased around by security forces.
"Bloodbath again! Bloodbath again!" a Rangoon resident shouted while watching soldiers break up one march by shooting into air, firing tear gas, and beating protesters with clubs.
Thousands of monks had provided the backbone of the protests, but yesterday they were besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire in the nation's two largest cities, Rangoon and Mandalay. Troops stood guard outside and blocked nearby roads to keep the clergymen isolated.
Many Rangoon residents seemed pessimistic about the crackdown, fearing it fatally weakened a movement that began nearly six weeks ago as small protests over increases in fuel prices before growing into demonstrations by tens of thousands demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.
The corralling of monks was a serious blow. They carry high moral authority in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million people, and the protests had mushroomed when the clergymen joined in.
"The monks are the ones who give us courage," said a young woman who had taken part in a huge demonstration Thursday that broke up when troops shot protesters. "I don't think that we have any more hope to win."
Defiant of international condemnation, the military regime turned its troops loose on demonstrators Wednesday. Although the crackdown raised fears of a repeat of a 1988 democracy uprising that saw some 3,000 protesters slain, the junta appeared relatively restrained so far.
The government has said police and soldiers killed 10 people, including a Japanese journalist, in the first two days of the crackdown, but dissident groups put the number as high as 200.
Diplomats and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said yesterday that the junta's figure probably was greatly understated, based on the reports of witnesses and others.
Getting accurate casualty figures has been difficult, with many residents too afraid to speak out and foreign journalists barred from openly entering Burma. Soldiers and police were going door-to-door at some hotels in Rangoon looking for foreigners.
Violence continued yesterday, but there were no immediate reports of deaths from the government or dissident groups.
Just a few blocks from the Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon, some 2,000 protesters armed only with insults and boos briefly confronted soldiers carrying shields and automatic weapons.
As the crowd drew near, the soldiers fired bullets in the air, sending most of the protesters scurrying away. A handful of demonstrators who continued to walk toward the troops were beaten with clubs and dragged into trucks to be driven away.
"Why don't the Americans come to help us?" an onlooker asked. "Why doesn't America save us?"
In other spots, riot police chased smaller groups of activists, sometimes shooting their guns into the air.
"The military was out in force before they even gathered and moved quickly as small groups appeared, breaking them up with gunfire, tear gas, and clubs," said Shari Villarosa, the top US diplomat in Burma.
Authorities also shut off the country's two Internet service providers, although big companies and embassies hooked up to the Internet by satellite remained online. The Internet has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the democracy protests to the outside world.
Condemnation of the junta has been strong around the world. Yesterday, people protested outside Burma embassies in Australia, Britain, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan.
The United Nations' special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as today.
While some analysts thought negotiations were an unlikely prospect, one Western diplomat said the junta's decision to let Gambari in might mean they see a mediating role for him.
World pressure has made little impact on the junta over the years. Its members are highly suspicious of the outside world, and they have shrugged off intense criticism over such actions as keeping prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.