Dozens of opposition activists detained in Syria

A Syrian protester shouts slogans during a protest to express solidarity with Syrian people and calling for President Bashar Assad to step down, in front of Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, Sunday April, 24, 2011. AP Photo/ Nader Daoud

BEIRUT - Syrian security forces detained dozens of opposition activists and others in raids Sunday launched less than a week after President Bashar Assad's regime abolished emergency laws used for decades to crush dissent, a human rights activist said.

In the coastal town of Jableh, meanwhile, witnesses said that army troops and police opened fire from rooftop positions even though no protest was in progress, killing one person and wounding several others. The reports said that angry residents later blocked the main highway linking the cities of Tartous and Latakia to protest the attack.

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The police sweeps, which began late Saturday, reinforce opposition claims that the repeal of the nearly 50-year-old state of emergency codes offers no protection against blitz-style detentions by Assad's forces.

Also Sunday, the watchdog group Human Rights Watch called for a U.N. inquiry into Syria's widening crackdown on opposition protesters that has left more than 120 dead people in recent days and brought some resignations in protest from Assad's regime.

"I pay my respect to the martyrs," said Bashir Mohammed al-Zoebi, one of two provincial council members who left their posts Sunday in the southern region Daraa, which has the highest death toll in the country.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said the arrests concentrated on the capital Damascus and suburbs as well as the central city of Homs, which has been a hotbed of demonstrations against Assad's authoritarian rule.

"These people are not being arrested in a legal way. They are being kidnapped," Qurabi said, claiming the plainclothes security agents did not have formal arrest warrants.

Qurabi did not have full figures for those detained, but said at least 20 people were arrested in Homs. A resident in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said at least five people were taken into custody and authorities cut Internet and telephone connections.

One leading activist, Daniel Soaud, was among those taken into custody, but was released Sunday.

Qurabi said most of the detainees are expected to be brought before judicial authorities Monday and charged with demonstrating without permission.

Under the new rules that replaced the emergency laws on Thursday, Interior Ministry approval is needed to stage protest marches - which is widely interpreted as simply creating a de facto ban on demonstration.

More than 300 people have been killed - including more than 120 on Friday and Saturday - since the uprising against Assad's regime began five weeks ago, according to rights groups. Friday was the deadliest day since the uprising began with 112 killed, rights groups said.

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"After Friday's carnage, it is no longer enough to condemn the violence," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "Faced with the Syrian authorities shoot-to-kill strategy, the international community needs to impose sanctions on those ordering the shooting of protesters."

The group also urged the United States and European Union to impose sanctions against Syrian officials accused of using force against demonstrators.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Assad to say he was "greatly disturbed" by the reports of violence. Many Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, have condemned Syria's harsh tactics to quell dissident.

On Sunday, state-run news agency SANA said 286 police officers have been wounded since the uprising began. It did not give further details.

The resident in Douma, the Damascus suburb, said authorities tried to force families of three people killed in protests to sign documents that they were victims of an "armed gang." The families refused and hours later the bodies were handed over as tens of thousands of mourners chanted: "he who kills his people is a traitor"

In the southern village of Izraa - where others were killed Friday - a witness said some men in the village chanted: "May God destroy Assad."

The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The protest movement has become the most serious threat to Assad's hold on power in one of the most rigidly controlled countries in the Middle East.

Assad has blamed most of the unrest on a "foreign conspiracy" and armed thugs trying to sow sectarian strife. Fears of sectarianism are strong in Syria with the dangers of fractured societies so apparent in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

But possible cracks could be emerging from within.

Two lawmakers and a religious leader from the southern province of Daraa - where the uprising began - resigned Saturday in disgust over the killings. They were joined by the two provincial council members who stepped down.

Such internal rifts have added resonance since nearly all opposition figures have been either jailed or exiled during the 40-year dynasty of the Assad family.

On Sunday, Britain's Foreign Office advised against all travel to Syria because of the violence. It added that "in light of the deteriorating security situation, British nationals in Syria who have no pressing need to remain should leave by commercial means."

Many Iraqi Christians, who fled to Syria to escape violence in their homeland, did not attend Sunday Easter Masses because of the unrest.

Abu Fadi, an Iraqi Christian, said that he and his family had attended midnight Mass in a church in central Damascus for the past five years.

"This time, we and others families decided to stay home and even not to attend the morning mass due to the tense and unstable current situation in Syria. People are afraid of going out, unless to do important things," said Abu Fadi, who did not use his name because of fears of reprisals from authorities.

In Jordan, 150 Syrians living in the kingdom protested outside their embassy in Amman. "Out, out with the tyrant Bashar Assad," shouted the group, which also burned a portrait of Assad.