(photo credit: Associated Press)
A Turkish envoy met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, reversing his own spokesman's assertion that the meeting did not occur.
It was not clear why Erdogan decided to publicize the meeting, which had been denied earlier, during an interview Tuesday with private NTV Television.
Officials from both the prime minister's own staff and the Foreign Ministry said they had learned only on Tuesday that the meeting took place.
Erdogan said in the interview that his personal envoy, Ahmet Davutoglu, met briefly with the Hamas leader on the suggestion of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Of course, the subject of meeting with Mr. Mashaal came up while he was meeting with Mr. Assad," Erdogan said. "It was said that 'If you explain to him [Mashaal] personally, it will be much more targeted."'
Erdogan provided no details of what his envoy spoke about with Mashaal, who lives in exile in Syria. Mashaal had visited Turkey earlier this year at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry, straining already tense relations between Turkey and Israel.
Israel sees Mashaal as a top terrorist threat and has recently declared him a legitimate target for assassination.
Turkey has traditionally tried to play a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the current Israeli military offensive in Gaza - which started after Palestinian militants abducted an Israeli soldier - has drawn repeated condemnation from the Turkish government and sparked vigorous efforts by Turkey to get the international community to pressure Israel to back off.
Erdogan said Turkey's attempts to engage and influence Hamas would be vindicated with time.
"That the meetings we've had were useful will be better understood as time passes," he said.
Erdogan also did not cite the abduction of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit as the start of the crisis.
"This process did not start all at once. This process started with the killings of seven innocent Palestinian children on a beach," he said, apparently referring to an explosion last month that killed eight Palestinians. Israel denies that it was responsible.
Erdogan has spoken with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and US President George W. Bush about the situation in Gaza, and said he was in regular contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul also reportedly spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Tuesday. He has called Israeli's killings of Palestinians in Gaza "horrifying." Erdogan said he spoke with Palestinian leaders right after the abduction of the 19-year-old Israeli soldier, and that the Palestinians asked him for help in getting time to try to return the soldier before reprisal attacks escalated tensions.
Erdogan said he passed that message on to Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.
"But we woke up the next day, and unfortunately bombs had exploded, the [Palestinian] infrastructure had suffered serious damage - these incidents happened," Erdogan said.
"At this time, developments are going in a very negative direction. We cannot be insensitive to this, we will not."
Khaled Mashaal survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997 and has said he is not afraid of another one because he is "yearning to meet God."