Soldiers Thursday shot and wounded 17 looting suspects, and enraged demonstrators beheaded three people as hundreds of thousands of protesters punctuated the start of a nationwide strike meant to topple the one-party government, official radio, diplomats and witnesses said.

The United States and at least six other countries made plans including possible use of military aircraft to evacuate dependents of embassy staff as the Burmese capital slipped towards anarchy, officials said.Chanting and waving anti-government banners, demonstrators poured through the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities, demanding the resignation of the one-party regime that has controlled the isolated Southeast Asian nation for more than 26 years.

The demonstrations were the largest in the wave of unrest that has hit Burma since about 1 million people marched in protests on Aug. 24.

Although troops armed with assault rifles were on guard near government buildings and key streets, there were no reports of shooting at the demonstrators at those locations, residents and diplomats said.

The radio said that seven corpses were found Thursday near Inya lake in Rangoon with arrow and sword wounds. It did not identify the victims.

It charged that an army officer captured by demonstrators near the Shwedagon Pagoda on Sunday was blindfolded and tortured for three days before being released.

The radio confirmed reports that a number of soldiers deserted to join the demonstrators, but described them as "mentally ill due to drunkenness and malaria."

Demonstrators said that five people had been caught attempting to give poisoned water to the crowds. Thesuspects were interrogated and when they confessed, at least three of them were beheaded, said a witness who saw the bodies.