Hamas: Carter holds second meeting with leader in Syria

Sunday, April 20, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Defying U.S. and Israeli warnings, former president Jimmy Carter met again Saturday with the exiled leader of the militant Hamas group and his deputy.

The two Palestinians are considered terrorists by the U.S. government, and Israel accuses them of masterminding attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. Both governments have sharply criticized Carter's overtures to the militant group.

Carter met Khaled Mashaal and his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, for about an hour Saturday morning, after more than four hours of talks the night before.

Carter, on what he has called a personal peace mission, is the most prominent American to hold talks with Mashaal, whose group claimed new legitimacy from the meetings with the Nobel laureate.

"Political isolation by the American administration has begun to crumble," Mohammed Nazzal, a top figure in Hamas' political bureau, said after Friday's meeting in Damascus. The U.S. government has had no contact with Hamas since designating it a terrorist organization in 1995.

On Saturday, Marzouk said Carter and Mashaal discussed a possible prisoner exchange with Israel, as well as how to lift a siege imposed by the Jewish state on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Carter, who brokered the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace, is trying to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Nazzal said Gaza-based Hamas leaders would travel to Syria on Saturday to confer with Mashaal and that Carter "will be informed of Hamas' response in the coming days."

The meetings were closed to media and held under tight security and Carter was not available for comment. The next leg of his Mideast tour takes him to Saudi Arabia.

Echoing criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the trip, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack suggested Friday that Carter had opened himself up to "exploitation" by both Hamas and the Syrian government. Carter also met with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Although long shunned by diplomats, Hamas thrust itself onto the international stage by winning the 2006 Palestinian parliament elections. The group forcibly seized control of Gaza from Fatah in June and set up a regime that rivals President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government.

An internationally backed Israeli boycott of Hamas -- partly an attempt to bolster Abbas' faction -- has put a stranglehold on Gaza, deepening the poverty of its 1.4 million residents.

Associated Press reporters Diaa Hadid in Gaza and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

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