(Adds White House comment, paragraphs 10-13)
By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA, April 23 (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on Wednesday accused Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of not telling the truth about warnings she said her department gave Carter not to speak to Hamas before a Middle East trip.
The State Department has said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, issued the warning before Carter, a veteran of Middle East diplomacy, went on his trip last week.
Rice said in Kuwait on Tuesday: "We counseled President Carter against going to the region and particularly against having contact with Hamas."
"President Carter has the greatest respect for ... Rice and believes her to be a truthful person. However, perhaps inadvertently, she is continuing to make a statement that is not true," a statement issued by the Carter center in Atlanta said on Wednesday.
"No one in the State Department or any other department of the U.S. government ever asked him (Carter) to refrain from his recent visit to the Middle East or even suggested that he not meet with Syrian President (Bashar) Assad or leaders of Hamas," it said.
It said Carter attempted to call Rice before making the trip and a deputy returned his call since Rice was in Europe.
"They had a very pleasant discussion for about 15 minutes, during which he never made any of the negative or cautionary comments described above. He never talked to anyone else," the statement said.
Carter had already on Monday, in an interview with National Public Radio, described as "absolutely false" any suggestion he had been warned not to meet Hamas.
"The United States is not going to deal with Hamas and we certainly told President Carter that we did not think that meeting with Hamas was going to help the Palestinians," Rice said Tuesday while attending a conference in Kuwait.
The White House backed Rice and said events after Carter’s meeting showed Hamas’ true character.
Carter "is a private citizen and he made a decision to not comply with what the State Department asked him to do," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters on Wednesday.
Perino made an apparent reference to an attack on Saturday in which a Palestinian suicide bomber and two other gunmen were killed when they attacked a border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, wounding 13 Israeli soldiers.
"Actions speak louder than words," said Perino of Hamas.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, is viewed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel.
Carter, who met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria over the weekend, is trying to draw the Islamist group into peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But Rice and other senior U.S. officials are concerned that Carter’s meeting could confuse U.S.-brokered peace talks already moving at a slow pace between Abbas and Olmert.
Hamas won a 2006 election and briefly formed a unity government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ secular Fatah faction in fighting in June. (Editing by Tom Brown)