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Hamas: Carter holds 2nd meeting with chief in Syria
MIDEAST SYRIA PALES 7712013
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad, not seen, at the Presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, on Friday, April 18, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    DAMASCUS, Syria — Defying U.S. and Israeli warnings, former President Carter met again on Saturday with the exiled leader of the militant Hamas group and his deputy.
    The two Palestinians are considered terrorists by the U.S. government and Israel accuses them of masterminding attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. Both governments have sharply criticized Carter’s overtures to the militant group.
    Carter met Mashaal and his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, for about an hour Saturday morning, after more than four hours of talks the night before.
    Carter, on what he has called a personal peace mission, is the most prominent American to hold talks with Mashaal, whose group claimed new legitimacy from the meetings with the Nobel laureate.
    On Saturday, Marzouk said Carter and Mashaal discussed a possible prisoner exchange with Israel, as well as how to lift a siege imposed by the Jewish state on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Carter, who brokered the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace, is trying to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
    But underscoring the impression that Carter did not win any concessions, Hamas said Friday that Shalit would ‘‘not see the light’’ until Palestinian prisoners are also released in an exchange.
    Carter’s meetings in Syria were closed to media and held under tight security, and he was not available for comment. He flew later Saturday to Saudi Arabia where he met with King Abdullah at the start of a two-day visit, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. No details were immediately available about their meeting.
    Echoing criticism from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the trip, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack suggested Friday that Carter had opened himself up to ‘‘exploitation’’ by both Hamas and the Syrian government. Carter also met with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
    The U.S. government has had no contact with Hamas since designating it a terrorist organization in 1995.
    Although long shunned by diplomats, Hamas thrust itself onto the international stage by winning the 2006 Palestinian parliament elections. The group forcibly seized control of Gaza from Fatah in June and set up a regime that rivals President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank government.
    An internationally backed Israeli boycott of Hamas — partly an attempt to bolster Abbas’ faction — has put a stranglehold on Gaza, deepening the poverty of its 1.4 million residents.