- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Former President Jimmy Carter met yesterday with the exiled leader of Hamas and the militant group’s deputy chief, men the U.S. government has labeled as global terrorists and Israel accuses of masterminding suicide bombings and kidnappings.

Mr. Carter’s meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal followed two other meetings between the former president and the Palestinian militant group in the Middle East this week. Hamas officials say the meetings have lent their group legitimacy.

Mr. Mashaal’s deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, attended the meeting with Mr. Carter at Mr. Mashaal’s Damascus office, a Hamas official at the site said. Mr. Abu Marzouk was designated a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1995, allowing the government to seize his assets. He was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York that same year and spent two years in a New York jail before he was deported in 1997.

Mr. Carter’s convoy arrived at Mr. Mashaal’s office for the meeting under tight security and reporters were prevented from getting near the site. The meeting was closed to all media.

Mr. Carter met Syrian President Bashar Assad earlier yesterday after arriving in Syria from Egypt.

The State Department twice advised Mr. Carter against meeting Hamas leaders before he left on his Mideast trip earlier this week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Mr. Carter’s plans to meet Mr. Mashaal, saying last week that Hamas is an impediment to Middle East peace.

Several members of Congress also urged Mr. Carter not to meet with Mr. Mashaal.

But Mr. Carter, who brokered the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, has defended what he calls his personal peace mission, saying Hamas must be engaged in order to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said yesterday he asked Mr. Carter earlier this week to arrange a meeting with Hamas to discuss a prisoner exchange. Mr. Yishai said he wanted to try to win the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza for two years.

Hamas said from Gaza yesterday that Cpl. Shalit will “not see the light” until Palestinian prisoners are also released in an exchange.

Mr. Yishai was the only Israeli Cabinet minister to meet Mr. Carter when he visited Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this week. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not meet Mr. Carter during his visit to avoid creating the impression that he was negotiating with Hamas.

The Carter-Mashaal meeting was the first public contact between a prominent American and Hamas officials since the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Mr. Mashaal in Syria in 2006.

The State Department did not comment further on the meeting yesterday.

“I don’t think I have anything more to add to what I as well as others have said previously on it,” spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. “We have made our views clear.”

Hamas official Mushir Masri, in a fiery speech yesterday to thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza, said the meetings with Mr. Carter were proof that Hamas was not a terrorist group, but a national liberation movement.

“It confirms the failure of the U.S. and European policies of ignoring Hamas,” he told the crowd. “It confirms that all the countries that assume Hamas is a terrorist group should reconsider.”

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