France handed Syria on Thursday a letter for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas Islamists for two years, hoping the message from his father Noam will reach him, an official close to President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Gilad Shalit, who has dual Israeli and French citizenship, was captured on the border with Gaza in June 2006. Israel and Hamas have not been able to agree on all the conditions for his release, including Israel's release of Palestinians in return.
The letter would be the first to reach Shalit since he was taken hostage, French officials say.
"It was done," a French official told Reuters during an official visit to Syria by Sarkozy.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal lives in Damascus, but a French official said Syria did not want to serve as a direct link with him, so France seized the opportunity of four-way talks in Damascus between the leaders of France, Syria, Turkey and Qatar.
"President Bashar (Assad) is happy to help but he does not want to be seen as an official, designated middleman who is recognized on this issue," another French official travelling with Sarkozy told reporters before the handover.
"We give the letter to President Bashar Assad, and he gives it to the emir of Qatar, and the emir of Qatar gives it to Khaled Mashaal," he said, describing the plan.
"Bashar Assad made a commitment to push Khaled Mashaal to ensure it reaches its destination and the emir of Qatar will do the same," he added.
Sarkozy: Shalit sensitive issue
The French officials did not say who handed the letter over for France, or who received it on Syria's behalf, but one aide said the exchange took place on the sidelines of the four-way summit in the Syrian presidential palace.
The exchange is a further indication of the thaw in ties that Paris has agreed to with Damascus as a reward for what France sees as Syria's role in helping reach a solution to the political crisis in neighboring Lebanon.
Details on the letter were not released, and Sarkozy told reporters he wanted to talk about efforts to secure Shalit's release as little as possible because the issue was so sensitive. Sarkozy says he has made obtaining Shalit's release a top foreign policy objective.
The French official briefing reporters ahead of the handover said only that the letter was written by Shalit's father, who had given it to French officials.