Hamas leader Meshaal thanks Syrian students before giving lecture at Damascus University
Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, who is responsible for the Islamist militant movement's operations in Damascus, failed to publicly support Syrian President Bashar al Assad, prompting rumours of a rift.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas were once close allies, but a rift has appeared in the relationship since the Syrian regime was accused of fabricating allegations against the Palestinian militant group.

Hamas has been forced to deny reports by the Syrian official news agency Sana that its chief in exile, Khalid Mashaal, had criticised Yousif al-Qaradawi, a well-known Islamic cleric who has strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sana quoted Mashaal as criticising Qaradawi for supporting protesters against the Syrian regime. The cleric should "free himself from pressures exerted on him by those he considers trustworthy," he was alleged to have said.

"Arab countries' leaders have sold our cause and the most renowned sheikhs have abandoned our people while President Bashar Assad was there to protect and support Hamas," according to the Sana report.

"While Arab countries' leaders expelled us, Syria hosted us, and when Arab cities closed their doors to us, Syria's heart embraced us."

Hamas responded: "The alleged remarks were made up and baseless."

The group, originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains close to the Egyptian Islamic movement, which provides it with financial support.

Tensions have recently increased between the Gaza ruling group and Damascus after Hamas failed to publicly support Assad.