Syrian security forces fired on mourners at a funeral for slain protesters Saturday as authorities vowed to crush any new unrest from a three-week uprising that showed no sign of letting up even as the death toll topped 170.
Activists vowed to accelerate their movement with daily protests nationwide, bringing new pressure on President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime. Assad has answered the tens of thousands of protesters with both force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
"Old-style crackdowns and techniques simply do not work anymore," said Aktham Nuaisse, a prominent Syrian pro-democracy activist. "The first thing authorities must do is stop this violence and enact serious reforms. Failing that, I fear everyone is going to lose control of the situation."
Protests erupted in Syria three weeks ago and have been growing steadily every week _ and have even rattled the key port city of Latakia in heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong. Early Saturday, security forces fired live ammunition to disperse hundreds of protesters in Latakia, witnesses said.
Friday marked what appeared to be the largest and most widespread gatherings so far with demonstrations across the nation demanding sweeping reforms _ and it brought the single bloodiest day of the uprising, with 37 killed around the country. Most of the deaths were in Daraa, an impoverished city near the Jordanian border that has become the epicenter of the protest movement.
Security forces in Daraa fired live ammunition Saturday to disperse a funeral march for the victims, wounding several people, said Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights.
Qurabi, who lives in exile in Egypt, said his group's information came from residents and witnesses in the city.
Further details on the shooting were not immediately available. Telephone calls to Daraa were not going through, and the Syrian government has placed severe restrictions on media coverage in the country.
A resident reached via Skype in the evening said heavy bursts of gunfire from assault rifles and machine guns were heard after dark. He said he had no way to verify whether there were casualties. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the authorities.
The editor-in-chief of the state-run Tishrin newspaper was fired Saturday after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera satellite station in which she held security forces responsible for Friday's violence in Daraa.
An official at the newspaper confirmed Saturday that Samira Masalmeh, who is from Daraa, was fired because of the interview. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to release the information.
Assad, as part of his gestures of reform, fired Daraa's governor on March 23, days after the protests began. On Saturday, the case of former governor Faisal Kalthoum and former security officer Atef Najib were referred to court as authorities investigate their role in igniting and handling protests in the city, a security official said.
A key demand of protesters is an end to a decades-old emergency law that gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.
The government blames the violence on armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest, raising the risks of more bloodshed. Syria's Interior Ministry said Saturday it will not tolerate "the intentional mixing between peaceful protests and sabotage and sowing sectarian strife."
The prospect of sectarian conflict is a very real concern in Syria, which has long prided itself on keeping a strict secular identity despite being home to a potentially volatile mosaic of different sects and religions.
Syria is home to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Iraq, who serve as a clear testament to the dangers of regime collapse and fracture in a religiously divided society. They also see the seemingly intractable sectarian tensions in Lebanon as a cautionary tale for their own lives.
But the demonstrations have brought Syria's sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades _ a taboo subject because of the Assad family's 40-year dynasty of minority rule in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation.
In Latakia, residents reported hearing hours of heavy gunfire overnight as security forces forcefully broke up a sit-in by protesters.
"The shooting went on for almost two hours, it was frightening," said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. There was no immediate word on casualties from the shooting.
Latakia is significant because the province has strong historical ties to Assad's minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Latakia is now home to a diverse mix of religious groups, with mostly Sunni Muslims in the urban core and Alawites in the countryside. At least 12 people died in clashes in the city two weeks ago, raising fears that the violence could take on a sectarian tone in coming days or weeks.
Kennedy reported from Cairo.