YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- Soldiers reportedly fired into crowds and beat Buddhist monks Thursday, and state media said nine people were killed as Myanmar's military rulers continued its crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
Witnesses' accounts of other deaths, including a university student, could not be confirmed in this Southeastern Asian country formerly known as Burma, the site of massive protests this week led by Buddhist monks pushing for democracy.
One witness told CNN monks were at the front of a march in the capital, Yangon, as soldiers waded into it Thursday, while other reports indicated attempts to keep monks off the streets on Thursday.
An American witness said soldiers beat several protesters mercilessly, at least one of them to death.
"The police and military guys started coming toward the crowd, and all of a sudden started beating them and running after them," said the woman, requesting anonymity. She said she witnessed the violence from a nearby building.
"And in one corner they got around, maybe, five or seven people, and they started beating them so bad for almost five minutes, and then they took them and put them in trucks."
The troops left one person dead on the ground, she said, and they returned a few minutes later to retrieve the body.
"It was a crowd of, I would say, around 2,000 people, between 2,000 and 3,000 people today, and they ... put 10 monks in front of them as a human shield. But the police didn't care. They just came and started even beating the monks," she said. She added the monks escaped to safety
But from his vantage point in Yangon's western section, Swedish Embassy official Johan Hallenborg said he could not see any of the red-robed Buddhist monks who led demonstrators on previous days.
"What we heard was that the police and the military have gone in and have contained monks in their temples," Hallenborg said. "I can't confirm how many, but it seems the monks are arrested or confined in the pagodas."
Opposition Web sites and blogs showed images of disheveled monasteries with broken windows and blood on the floor.
"This morning, around noon, we went around the city, and we saw that most of the monasteries were locked and we saw some of the monks inside," the American witness said.
Democratic Voice of Burma reported that civilians blocked troops who returned to Ngway Kyar Yan monastery Thursday to arrest the abbot.
"The military is surrounding the monastery and firing warning shots to disperse the crowds, but people are standing firm," said a bystander, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma . Watch community support protests »
Unconfirmed reports said five monks were killed during the day Wednesday.
The government imposed a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people, the U.S. Embassy said.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, streets that had been jammed with as many as 100,000 protesters were deserted, the American witness said.
"Right now it's a ghost town. ... Everybody is so afraid," she said.
"These people need help," the woman said. "It's inhumane what's happening here."
Gunfire broke out when troops confronted thousands of demonstrators who had marched from Yangon's center to its eastern Tamwe township Thursday afternoon, opposition Web site Irrawaddy.org reported. Two contingents of troops sealed the huge crowds off and then opened fire, the report said.
A Japanese journalist was among those shot and killed Thursday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the man's employer said.
An executive with Japanese news agency APF said Kenji Nagai, 50, was in a crowd of protesters when he was shot. His body was carried to a hospital, where a Japanese consular official confirmed his identity, said the executive, who got his information from the Foreign Ministry.
Nagai, an independent video journalist under contract with APF, entered the country Tuesday to cover the protests, the news agency executive said.
Japan's Foreign Ministry planned to summon the Myanmar ambassador to appeal to the junta to halt the violence, the Kyodo news agency reported.
Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, said Thursday "seems to be the most violent day throughout the demonstrations," which unfolded in mid-August in response to higher gas prices in the country. See a timeline of Myanmar history »
In a phone call from the heart of the protests, a Myanmar citizen who asked not to be named for security reasons described a deteriorating scene in the streets.
"People are shot and they are running. The soldiers shoot the people. ... Some people are walking on the street and shouting," she said, adding she witnessed government troops shooting a man.
"No one can help us. We have no weapons," she said. The military junta "have weapons, and they are doing what they want. We have no rights."
Meanwhile, on its state-run Web site, the government offered its own account of Wednesday's protests.
"The members of the security forces fired some shots, employing the least force to disperse the mob," the government said.
An "unidentified man, 30, was killed" and three people were wounded and treated at Yangon General Hospital, the statement said. Also, eight police officers -- including two senior officials -- sustained injuries, it said.
According to the government, security officials were provoked into violence after their attempts to disperse the crowd peacefully failed.
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