The United States Tuesday condemned what it said was the Syrian government's blatant abuse of the rights of those peacefully seeking to express opposing views. The government of President Bashar al-Assad last week arrested at least nine democracy advocates in what was described as the biggest crackdown of its kind in years.

The United States is deploring what it says is an atmosphere of fear being fostered by Syrian authorities, and it is calling on the Damascus government to cease the harassment of those trying to defend human rights in that country.

The comments by the State Department followed the arrest of Syria's leading human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, opposition activist Michel Kilo and several other critics of the Damascus government in a series of actions by security police last week.

Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the crackdown is of great concern to the United States, and only the latest example of Syria's blatant abuse of the rights of those peacefully seeking to express opposing views:

"The Syrian government continues to implement domestic policies which distance itself from the rest of the international community," said Sean McCormack. "Arrests without warrant and sentences without evidence are not acceptable means of addressing political dissent. We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Syria."

All but one of the Syrian activists arrested last week were reported to have signed a petition calling for an improvement in Syria's relations with Lebanon.

The petition, also signed by hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, came as the U.N. Security Council considered a resolution calling on Syria to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon and set an mutually-agreed border with its neighbor.

The Syrian state media condemned petition signatories and said the timing of the move was suspicious given the U.N. debate. The Security Council approved the resolution sponsored by the United States, Britain and France last Wednesday in a 13 to nothing vote.

Russia and China abstained on the measure, which also called on Syria to fully implement past resolutions demanding that it cease interference in Lebanon and support the disarmament of all Lebanese militias.

Spokesman McCormack also criticized as provocative a Syrian move to seek the arrest of Lebanese Druze leader and legislator Walid Jumblatt, a leading critic of Syria's role in Lebanon.

He said the Bush administration is continuing to consider additional U.S. sanctions against Syria under the Syria Accountability Act approved by Congress in 2003, but has no immediate plans to impose new measures.

President Bush banned most U.S. exports to Syria two years ago under terms of the measure, but withheld action on more severe steps.