/ 17 April 2008

Former US leader Carter defies critics to meet Hamas

Former United States president Jimmy Carter met Gaza-based leaders of Islamist Hamas in Cairo on Thursday, defying US and Israeli criticism that saw him barred from visiting the Palestinian territory.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Carter, considered to be the architect of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, met a delegation from Hamas including hardliners Mahmud Zahar and Said Siam amid tight security at a Cairo hotel.

Neither delegation made any comment to journalists as they left the hotel.

Ahead of the talks, a Hamas official in Cairo who asked not to be named said that Carter, who has been snubbed by Israel and criticised by the US administration for wanting to meet Hamas, ”is well disposed and we need that”.

After Cairo, Carter is due to continue his regional tour in Damascus, where he will meet exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, courting further controversy.

Before meeting Hamas, he had lunch with President Hosni Mubarak amid ongoing Egyptian efforts to broker a truce between the Islamists and Israel.

However, the chances of achieving such a truce have been reduced by unrest in the Gaza Strip where violence on Wednesday killed 18 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and three Israeli soldiers.

On his arrival in Egypt, Zahar hailed the talks, saying: ”President Carter can break all the Israeli restraints that they want to place between him and Hamas and so we and our brothers in Damascus are determined to meet with him.”

Zahar and Siam are considered hard-line Hamas leaders and planned the violent takeover of Gaza from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June.

Israeli political leaders have criticised him over his plans to talk with Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the Jewish state as well as by the US and European Union.

US presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain on Wednesday both also criticised Carter’s meetings with Hamas, which does not recognise Washington’s key regional ally Israel.

”Hamas is not a state, Hamas is a terrorist organisation,” said Democratic hopeful Obama, while Republican McCain summarised the group, which won Palestinian elections in 2006, as ”thugs and murderers”.

In Beirut, US assistant secretary of state for near-Eastern affairs David Welch said Carter’s conversations with Hamas leaders risked being ”misrepresented”.

”We are concerned to advance peace here. We see no intention on the part of Hamas in doing so and there is some risk that these conversations will be misrepresented by Hamas,” the US official said.

The Hamas delegation was also due to meet Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to discuss a possible ceasefire with Israel, reopening the Rafah crossing, and the fate of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.

Carter on Sunday began a nine-day tour of the region to promote the Middle East peace process. He said Israel denied him permission to travel to Gaza, where Israel sealed its borders after Hamas took control of the territory.

Carter, who insists he is not acting as a mediator, has been urging talks with Hamas and Syria, saying a Middle East peace accord cannot be reached without them.

Washington has said the former president is acting in a personal capacity. After Syria, Carter is due to travel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. — Sapa-AFP