China fired three unarmed missiles into the sea close to Taiwan's two largest ports early today, in the latest salvo in a high-stakes game of intimidation two weeks before this breakaway island is to hold its first democratic presidential election.

Taiwanese officials confirmed that three surface-to-surface missiles were fired before dawn from across the narrow Taiwan Strait. Two landed near the vital southern seaport of Kaohsiung, and a third landed in the north, near the port of Keelung, only an hour's drive from Taipei, Taiwan's crowded capital.

China had previously announced that the two sites would be its target areas for the tests. The zone near Kaohsiung begins 35 miles off Taiwan's coast, and the target off Keelung starts 23 miles from the coast. The Defense Ministry statement said the missiles are believed to be Chinese-made M9s, which are modeled on Russian Scuds.

The missiles are capable of carrying high-explosive or incendiary warheads, but those fired today from the mainland carried only dummy warheads with remote-guided navigational devices in their tips, to allow the Chinese to track their paths, the statement said.

The M9s have a maximum range of about 375 miles.

Taiwanese officials have urged the population to remain calm, and there were few outward signs of panic as the first tests began. Local newspapers reported that some Taiwan residents had begun stockpiling food for fear of shortages, and some shelves in outlying cities were said to be empty.

According to other reports, after China announced the tests Thursday, Taiwanese flocked to banks trying to withdraw U.S. dollars, and banks imposed a $3,000 withdrawal limit. Gold also reportedly was selling briskly.

Some airlines have been forced to reroute their planes around the testing area, and ships were taking a longer, more circuitous route to avoid the missile-firing splash zones. But various reports said shipping today was largely unaffected. Of Taiwan's $214.92 billion in trade last year, about $152 billion flowed through the two ports that are near the test sites.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province of China, has said the missile tests -- its third series in eight months and the closest yet to Taiwan's soil -- would continue for one week.

Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said in Beijing today that the "Taiwan compatriots don't have to panic over the pending military exercises. . . . What they should really worry about is that the independence' seekers, with support from some international forces bent on splitting China, continue on their wrong path." He warned, "That will be a real disaster."

A predawn announcement in Taipei from the Defense Ministry confirmed that Communist China fired two surface-to-surface missiles. Taiwanese officials later said a third missile had landed near Kaohsiung. They appeared to hit their designated target areas without incident. There had been worries about a misfire or an errant missile hitting a populated area.

The start of the missile tests drew an immediate response from Washington. White House press secretary Michael McCurry confirmed the tests had started and called them "both provocative and reckless." He appealed to Beijing to open talks with Taipei to settle the two nations' differences.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns called the tests "reckless and potentially dangerous," and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said China's attempts to intimidate Taiwan amounted to "an act of terror."

But Shen Guofang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, brushed aside international criticism, telling reporters, "It is China who should be protesting, because the question of Taiwan is entirely China's internal affair, in which no other country has the right to interfere."

A senior Taiwanese official with the government body that handles relations with the mainland condemned the missile tests as "irresponsible and dangerous" and an example of China's "brutal intimidation and provocation."

Kao Koong-liang, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, said, "By firing missiles at us, Beijing is clearly using military means to attain political ends."

Beijing apparently is seeking to use the tests to influence Taiwan's March 23 election by intimidating voters into abandoning their support for the popular president, Lee Teng-hui. Lee, who is heavily favored to win, in the last few years has embarked on a globe-trotting diplomatic campaign to raise this island's international profile.

Taiwan also has been lobbying heavily for a seat at the United Nations, an act that China views as tantamount to a statement of secession. The current Taiwanese regime was founded by the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist, or Kuomintang, army after the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland in 1949. The two sides have been in a state of undeclared war since then, with China vowing to eventually take Taiwan.

China consistently has declared it would attack Taiwan if the island's leaders ever formally declared independence. In recent years, however, Taiwan has moved from a Kuomintang-dominated military dictatorship to one of Asia's newest and liveliest democracies. The process will be complete in two weeks when Taiwanese for the first time go to the polls to elect their president.

Taiwan's democratization appears to rattle China as much as Lee's supposed moves toward independence, analysts say. The more democratic, pluralistic Taiwan stands in sharp contrast to China's tightly controlled, Communist authoritarianism. Correspondent Steven Mufson in Beijing contributed to this report.