Syria protests - AFP - April 1, 2011
Syrian anti-government protesters march in the northeastern town of Qamishli on April 1, 2011 Photo by AFP
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The Palestinian group Hamas sent its support on Saturday to Syria's ruling hierarchy and said unprecedented protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule must not compromise Syria's "rejectionist" stand against Israel.

In the first public reaction to protests demanding political freedoms and end to corruption in Syria, during which at least 60 people have been killed, the Iranian- and Syrian- backed Islamist group toed the official Syrian line, saying the stability of Syria was priority.

"We hope the current situation will be overcome in the way that achieves the aspirations and the wishes of the Syrian people and maintains the stability of Syria and its internal integration and reinforces its role in the side of confrontation and rejection," a Hamas statement said.

"In the light of all of this we reaffirm our standing beside brotherly Syria, beside both its leadership and people," the statement said.

There had been doubts whether Hamas, which has built a reputation as a liberation movement among its Palestinian constituents, would publicly back Syria in what has been seen as a campaign of repression against Syria's democrats.

The statement said Syria, which has been seeking to resume peace talks with Israel with U.S. help, supported Hamas "in the most difficult and the most critical times. It was not deterred by the pressures and it upheld the path of resistance and rejection in the region."

Assad touted Syria as a champion of Arab rights in a speech on Wednesday.

Commenting on the protests, Assad played down the possibility of any fundamental transformation to Syria's autocratic political system, which he has kept intact since succeeding his late father, President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

The elder Assad cultivated ties with Hamas even as his forces crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, killing thousands of people, and backed Lebanese militias as they mounted fierce attacks on Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

Syria hosted exiled Hamas leaders after they were expelled from Jordan in 1999, including the group's leader Khaled Meshaal, who still lives in Syria.