JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel released two prisoners on Sunday, sending them back to Syria in what Damascus described as Russian-mediated reciprocation for the repatriation of the body of a long-missing Israeli soldier.
Russia, a key Damascus ally, this month handed Israel the remains and personal effects of Zachary Baumel, who was declared missing in action along with two other Israeli soldiers following a 1982 tank battle with Syrian forces in Lebanon.
A Syrian government source said Damascus then pressured Moscow to secure a prisoner release by Israel. There was no immediate comment on Sunday from Russia.
The Israeli military said in a statement that two prisoners were transferred to the International Committee of the Red Cross at Quneitra crossing on the armistice line with the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Israeli military statement described the two men as Syrians. Israel’s Prisons Service identified them as Ahmed Khamis, from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, and Zidan Taweel, from the Syrian Druze village of Hader.
Khamis was a member of the Fatah faction who was jailed in 2005 after trying to attack an Israeli army base, and Taweel was jailed in 2008 for drug smuggling, the Prisons Service said.
Israel’s minister for regional cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the prisoner release did not constitute a swap with Syria, an enemy state. But he voiced hope that it might help with the recovery of other Israelis lost to the Syrians in past wars.
“If with a gesture like this we leave the Syrians with less of a sour taste, then that is a positive thing,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra)