Hundreds of thousands of people rallied Monday in Burma to demand an end to authoritarian rule, and heavily armed soldiers stopped protesters from marching across the capital of Rangoon, diplomats and news reports said.

In the northern city of Mandalay, hundreds of thousands of people, including housewives and children, filled the streets in response to student calls for a nationwide protest and a general strike, Japan's Kyodo news service said.Some protesters waved the fighting peacock flag used in the struggle for independence from Britain in the 1940s.

Many train and bus operators joined the strike, bringing public transportation to a halt, the report said.

Soldiers closed off key areas of Rangoon and stopped thousands of demonstrators from marching there, witnesses and diplomats said.

An Asian diplomat said about 20,000 people heeded student calls and rallied outside Rangoon General Hospital in the largest demonstration in the capital since rioting culminated in the resignation of President Sein Lwin on Aug. 12. There were no reports of violence today in Rangoon.

Sein Lwin was replaced by President Maung Maung, the country's first civilian leader in 26 years.

Kyodo reported from Rangoon that a group of protestors rallied in front of the U.S. Embassy, saying: "We want our movement to be communicated to countries around the world."

The protesters are demanding an end to one-party rule in Burma.

In the southern city of Victoria Point near the Thai border, thousands of demonstrators marched to the town hall, chanting slogans condemning one-party rule, a senior Thai police official said.

Rebels fighting the government threw their support behind the students.

The Asian diplomat said the demonstrators gathered peacefully in downtown Rangoon. He said most shops in the capital were open in the morning, despite student calls for a nationwide general strike, but closed as the rally began.

The diplomat, who demanded anonymity, said about 10,000 demonstrators remained outside the hospital early tonight.

"When about half of those taking part in the rally set out to march, they were blocked by soldiers," he said by telephone.

The diplomat was not sure how the marchers were turned away.

A Burmese source reached by telephone in Rangoon said soldiers closed off parts of the city with barbed wire and other barricades, evidently to block any mass marches.