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(photo credit: Associated Press)
Veteran US activist Rev. Jesse Jackson discussed an Israel-Hizbullah prisoner swap with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday, and appealed for dialogue as a means to solve the Mideast's problems.
Jackson, who arrived in Damascus on the first leg of a tour that also includes stops in Lebanon and Israel, said he was on a humanitarian mission to gauge the "views" of Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli officials. He also said he would appeal to them to stick to the UN-brokered cease-fire that took effect on August 14.
At a news conference with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad, Jackson said he had also brought up the subject of a prisoner swap in his discussions with Syrian leaders.
It was not clear whether Jackson had also discussed the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured in a June 25 raid by Hamas. Syria hosts exiled Hamas leaders and is thought to hold sway over the Islamist group.
Israel, meanwhile, politely dismissed Jackson's initiative. "We appreciate Jesse Jackson's sensitivity to the humanitarian issues," one diplomatic official said, adding that Israel was calling for the unconditional release of the soldiers.
Another government source said Jackson's meeting with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal "put him in a place where he should not be."
Jackson was leading a 10-member ecumenical delegation representing Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant groups. He also held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, as well as with Christian and Muslim clergymen in Damascus.
Asked what role he might play in improving Syrian-American relations and resuming stalled peace negotiations with Israel, Jackson said, "We are on a humanitarian mission, we don't represent the US administration. We are here to meet officials in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, to urge for the cease-fire to hold and to guarantee humanitarian aid."
"We found that the most important thing is dialogue, and we must try it," Jackson said.