BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Syrian security forces fired on protesters in the cities of Latakia and Dara on Saturday, a day after the bloodiest and largest antigovernment protests since the uprising began.
In the port city of Latakia, security forces fired live ammunition to break up a sit-in early Saturday.
Residents reported hearing hours of heavy gunfire overnight as security forces dispersed hundreds of protesters.
“The shooting went on for almost two hours,” said one resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “It was frightening.”
There was no immediate word on casualties.
Latakia is significant because it lies in a province that has strong historical ties to President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, 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 were killed in clashes in the city two weeks ago, raising fears that the violence could take on a sectarian tone in the coming days or weeks.
Later Saturday, security forces fired on protesters during a funeral in Dara, a volatile southern city where at least 25 people were killed on Friday, a Syrian human rights advocate said.
The advocate, Ammar Qurabi, who leads Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said the group’s information was coming from residents and witnesses in Dara. He said several people were wounded Saturday as burials were taking place.
The death toll related to the widespread protests on Friday rose on Saturday as rights advocates confirmed that at least 37 people had been killed nationwide. Most of the dead, and hundreds of wounded people, were reported to be in Dara, where burials on Saturday turned into further protests.
More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began in earnest last month, human rights groups say.
Activists seeking to break Mr. Assad’s iron-fisted rule called Saturday for daily protests, which would be a serious escalation in a movement that so far has gathered only on Fridays.
That call was met with a sharp warning by Syrian authorities, who said they would crush the protests, raising the risks of further bloodshed.
Syria’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that it would not tolerate “the intentional mixing between peaceful protests and sabotage and sowing sectarian strife.”
State-run television said Friday that 19 police officers and members of the security forces had been killed when gunmen opened fire on them. It was the first significant claim of casualties by the Syrian government, which has contended that the unrest is driven by armed gangs, and it could signal plans for a stronger crackdown.
The accounts could not be independently verified. Syrian authorities have banned most journalists from entering the country and tightly control those inside.
The calls for reform have shaken Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.