- Egypt - Hamas - Israel - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian Territories
Former US president Jimmy Carter met exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in the Syrian capital on Friday despite strong opposition from Israel and the White House.
The controversial meeting was being held at a Hamas office and attended by top Islamist leaders Musa Abu Marzuq and Mohmmed Nazzal, an AFP photographer at the scene said.
Abu Marzuq said Carter and Meshaal would discuss the fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and other Palestinian militants in June 2006.
"They will also hold talks on a truce (with Israel) and ending the sanctions on the Palestinian people," he told AFP ahead of the meeting.
Carter, who is on a regional tour to promote Middle East peace, earlier met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
State news agency Sana later said they discussed the peace process and relations between the two countries.
The two men expressed "their support for dialogue in arriving at political solutions to problems" and considered it important to "mobilise efforts to reduce the suffering of the Palestinians and to lift the (Israeli) blockade" on the Gaza Strip.
Carter is on a nine-day regional tour that has already seen him visit Israel, the West Bank and Egypt, where on Thursday he met with top Gaza-based Hamas leaders Mahmud Zahar and Said Siam.
That meeting took place in Cairo after Israel barred the former president from visiting the Gaza Strip, which the Islamists have ruled since seizing it in June.
"We had common points of view and the talks will continue today during the meeting with the political leadership of Hamas in Damascus," Zahar said in a telephone interview with AFP from Gaza.
"President Carter talked of humanitarian proposals linked to the truce," he said in reference to attempts to halt the bloodshed in Gaza, where 18 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed in the latest explosion of violence on Wednesday.
Israel has snubbed Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace prize, over his plans to talk with Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the Jewish state, the United States and European Union.
However, Israeli minister Eli Yishai says he is ready to meet Meshaal to negotiate the release of prisoners held by the Islamist movement, according to Friday's Haaretz daily.
"I am ready to meet with all necessary Hamas members," the newspaper quoted the deputy prime minister as telling former Carter during a meeting this week.
During the Israeli leg of his visit, Carter met Shalit's parents and pledged to take up with Meshaal calls for his release.
Washington has said the former president, seen as the architect of the historic 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, is acting in a personal capacity.
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," he said.
But Carter insists he is not acting as a mediator and has been urging talks with Hamas and Syria, saying peace cannot be reached without them.
"I think it's absolutely crucial that in a final dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region that Hamas be involved and that Syria be involved," he said in Israel on Monday.
Carter's tour will also include US allies Saudi Arabia and Jordan.