Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Saturday, 19 April 2008 01:02 UK

Carter in Hamas 'ceasefire call'

Former US President Jimmy Carter in Damascus
Jimmy Carter met the Syrian president before his talks with Hamas

Former US President Jimmy Carter has held talks with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria despite US and Israeli opposition.

Hamas spokesmen said Mr Carter had asked for it to stop rocket attacks on Israel and to enter talks for the release of an Israeli captive.

They said any truce must be two-way and there would be a "price" for freeing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Mr Carter earlier met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Gaza boycott

Mr Carter has said he is not trying to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but believes peace will not be achieved without talking to Hamas and Syria.

Israel, the US and the European Union all refuse to deal with the group directly and pursue policies to isolate it.

A spokesman for US President George W Bush described the meeting as "not wise", and said it had given Hamas a credibility it does not deserve.

Mr Carter, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, brokered the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab state.

Khaled Meshaal in August 2005
Khaled Meshaal has said Hamas wants a mutual ceasefire

He made no comment after the meeting.

But leading Hamas political bureau figure, Mohammed Nazzal, told reporters: "Carter suggested a truce and that Hamas should stop its rockets against Israel.

"We support a truce, but Israel should support it too."

One senior Hamas official in Damascus told Associated Press news agency Mr Carter had also asked Hamas to agree to a meeting with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai to discuss a prisoner exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Mr Nazzal would only say that Hamas leaders were to meet later to discuss the fate of Cpl Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in a raid into Israel from Gaza two years ago.

"They will discuss details related to the price and mechanisms for his release, which will not happen without a price," Mr Nazzal said.

Arab initiative

Hamas gunmen seized control of Gaza in June last year from their rival Palestinian faction Fatah, which has been left in control of the West Bank.

An Israeli boycott of Gaza has isolated the small territory and further deepened the poverty of its 1.4 million residents.

Mr Meshaal has said that Hamas accepts and supports an Arab peace initiative, which offers peace and recognition to Israel in return for a full withdrawal from the land captured in 1967 in the West Bank, the dismantling of Jewish settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state with a capital in east Jerusalem.

He says Hamas wants a mutual ceasefire, that would also include the West Bank and which would reopen Gaza's borders - but anything else would be Israel dictating a Palestinian "surrender".

'Risk of misrepresentation'

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other senior Israeli officials earlier snubbed a meeting with Mr Carter, saying to meet him would create the impression of negotiating with Hamas.

Mr Yishai, however, told Mr Carter he was willing to meet Hamas representatives - including Mr Meshaal - for talks to discuss the release of Cpl Shalit.

Such a meeting involving Mr Yishai - the leader of the orthodox Shas party - would be against Israeli government policy. Shas is an important member of the governing coalition in Israel, holding four cabinet posts.

Washington has played down Mr Carter's trip, saying he is acting in a personal capacity and that there is "some risk" that his talks with Hamas "will be misrepresented" by the group.

Syrian state news agency Sana said Mr Carter and Mr Assad had discussed the peace process and ties between the two countries.

After Syria, Mr Carter is due to travel to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

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