DAMASCUS, Syria -- In a capital awash with Syrian flags, posters supporting President Bashar Assad and pamphlets declaring his party's achievements on its 41st anniversary, a paper banner raised Monday urging freedom for political prisoners did not fit in.
Syrian authorities quickly tore it up, broke up the rare demonstration and arrested the small group of activists -- who knew that was the most likely outcome of their call for change.
A U.S. diplomat observing the demonstration was also briefly detained, prompting a protest from the U.S. government and an apology from the Syrians, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The activists were released after a interrogation, but their detentions highlighted tensions between the Syrian government and pro-democracy reformists.
"Breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting people for expressing their opinion is a mistake that the authorities bear responsibility for," said Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the independent Syrian National Democratic Gathering, a pro-democracy group.
Had it been allowed to continue, the protest outside Parliament -- organized by the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria -- would have been the first of its kind in a country where political activity is tightly controlled.
The head of the group, Aktham Naisse, said that activists had expected to be arrested and that authorities had pressured him to cancel the planned sit-in because it "served American interests at this time."
When the group of around 20 protesters arrived at the Parliament building in downtown Damascus, Syrian riot police and plainclothes security agents were waiting. The police told the activists to disperse, but one man raised a banner that read: "Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience." Agents quickly tore the banner up and snatched the notebooks of journalists gathered to cover the protest.
At one point, Naisse, a lawyer from the northern town of Latakia who was imprisoned for seven years for political activity, told the activists to raise their hands in the air. "We're going to prison, we are not afraid," he declared.
The diplomat who was detained was held at a police facility for about an hour before being released, Boucher said. The diplomat was not identified.
Boucher said Syrian security officials later apologized for what he described as a clear breach of diplomatic practice. He added that the U.S Embassy had protested the incident "in the strongest terms."
It was unclear how many activists were arrested. The Human Rights Association in Syria said in a statement that 30 protesters were beaten up and arrested. Boucher said 25 Syrians were arrested. But Naisse, after his release, told AP that 104 people were detained.
Since the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Syria has been under pressure from the U.S. administration to reform.
President Bashar Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system set up by his father. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors.
But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted of trying illegally to change the constitution.
Last month, 10 students were arrested at their college in Aleppo for protesting new employment laws for engineering graduates. Kurds, a minority in Syria, are routinely rounded up while demonstrating for their rights.
Naisse's group has circulated a petition calling for an end to emergency laws, the release of political detainees and the return of all exiles. It is to be presented to Syrian authorities on March 17, the anniversary of a 1992 campaign of mass arrests under President Hafez Assad, Naisse said.
Syria on Monday marked the 1963 March Revolution, when a coup brought the Baath Arab Socialist Party to power. In Damascus, Syrian flags and large banners proclaiming support for Assad filled the streets. Military helicopters flew over the capital, dropping pamphlets listing the achievements of the March Revolution.