The former US president Jimmy Carter met the exiled leader of Hamas yesterday, despite US and Israeli objections to talks with a man accused of masterminding kidnappings and suicide bombings against Israelis.
In Israel, the cabinet minister Eli Yishai said he had asked Mr Carter earlier this week to arrange a meeting with Hamas to discuss a prisoner exchange. Israel refuses to deal with the militant group, which is pledged to its destruction.
Mr Carter's convoy arrived yesterday afternoon at the Damascus office of Khaled Mashaal under tight security. Earlier in the day he met the Syrian President Bashar Assad after travelling to Syria from Egypt.
Mr Carter has already met Hamas officials twice this week. In Cairo on Thursday, he asked senior officials from Gaza to halt rocket attacks against Israel. And in the West Bank on Wednesday, he angered Israelis by embracing a Hamas representative.
Mashaal is accused of masterminding the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit near Gaza two years ago. Israel has also accused Hamas's Damascus-based leadership of directing suicide bombings such as the September 2004 attacks that killed 16 Israelis in the southern city of Beersheba.
The US government has distanced itself from Mr Carter's contacts with Hamas, saying it is purely a personal initiative.
But he defended his mission on Thursday. "You can't have an agreement that must involve certain parties, unless you talk to those parties to conclude the agreement," he said at the American University in Cairo.
Mr Carter also said he knows some Israeli government officials are "quite willing" to meet Hamas and speculated that might happen in the near future.
Mr Yishai, the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday that he had asked Mr Carter to arrange a meeting with Hamas to try to win the release of Corporal Shalit.
Hamas said the soldier would "not see the light" until Palestinian prisoners were also released.
Mr Yishai was the only Israeli minister to meet Mr Carter when he visited Israel and the Palestinians territories this week.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas's Syria-based political bureau, told the Associated Press that calming the situation between Hamas and Israel, as well as the fate of Cpl Shalit, would be on the agenda during the meeting with Mashaal. "Hamas will not be a hurdle in any future prisoner exchange," he said. Asked if Hamas was ready to sit down and talk directly to the Israelis, Mr Marzouk said there were no direct talks with Israel.
Hamas is locked in a power struggle with the Fatah faction headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. The organisation forcibly seized Gaza from Fatah in June and set up a regime that rivals the West Bank government.
The Hamas official Mushir Masri, in a speech yesterday to thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza, said the meetings with Mr Carter were proof that Hamas was not a terrorist group.
He said countries and groups were starting to understand there could be no calm or stability without engaging Hamas.
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