TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel on Friday released two more prisoners, including one jailed for spying for Syria, in what it called a goodwill gesture for the Russian-assisted repatriation last year of the body of a long-missing Israeli soldier.
Russia, a key ally of Syria, in April handed Israel the remains and personal effects of Zachary Baumel, who was declared missing in action along with two other Israeli soldiers after a 1982 tank battle with Syrian forces in Lebanon.
The Israeli prime minister’s office said the two men freed were from Majdal Shams, a Druze village in Golan Heights territory Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move not recognized internationally.
Sidqi al-Maqt was jailed in 2015 “for treason and espionage, support for terrorism and contact with a hostile organisation”, and Amal Abu Saleh the same year “for killing a Syrian civilian”, Israel’s Prisons Service said in a statement.
Maqt, 53, had been sentenced to 11 years in prison in part for spying for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Prisons Service spokeswoman said.
Abu Salah, 26, was serving a seven-year sentence after attacking an Israeli military ambulance carrying Syrian casualties from that country’s civil war, killing one of them, Israeli media reported.
Both men were freed “before the end of their imprisonment” in coordination with the Israeli military, the Prisons Service said. They were expected to return to Majdal Shams.
In April last year, Israel freed two Syrian prisoners back to Syria in an initial goodwill gesture for the return of Baumel’s body after it was discovered by Russian special forces in Syria.
Speaking to reporters outside Ketziot prison in southern Israel, Maqt said his release “is thanks to the efforts of President Bashar al-Assad”.
“The will of the Syrian people won and the will of (Assad) won when the Israeli enemy and the Israeli occupation were forced to release us without any conditions or restrictions,” Maqt said.
The Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Maqt as saying that he “looks forward to the liberation of all Syrians”.
The roughly 20,000 Druze residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights largely consider themselves Syrian and do not recognise Israel’s sovereignty there.
There was no immediate comment on Friday’s release from Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to Syria this week, only his second since intervening in that country’s civil war in 2015.
Reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv with additional reporting by Eric Knecht in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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