April 27, 2019 / 9:16 AM / 4 months ago

Israel to free two prisoners after recovering soldier's remains from Syria

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will release two prisoners after the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since 1982 were recovered by Russian special forces in Syria, Israeli and Syrian officials said.

People carry the coffin of Zachary Baumel, a U.S.-born Israeli soldier missing since a 1982 tank battle against Syrian forces and whose remains were recently recovered by Israel, during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Russia, a key Damascus ally, this month handed over the remains and personal effects of Zachary Baumel who was 21 when he was declared missing in action along with two other soldiers in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

A Syrian government source told Reuters that two or more Syrians would be freed from Israeli prisons after Russian mediation.

The source said authorities had pressured Moscow to secure the prisoners’ release after the news of the Israeli soldier’s remains were being handed over.

Both sides appeared to step away from any suggestion that the release was part of a negotiated swap between the two enemy states Israel and Syria.

“Israel decided in the past few days to release two prisoners as a goodwill gesture, only after the return of Zachary Baumel’s remains,” the Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Saturday.

There was no immediate comment from Russian authorities.

Israel’s Prison Service identified the two prisoners as Ahmed Khamis and Zidan Taweel.

It said Khamis, from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, was a member of the Palestinian Fatah group and was jailed in 2005 after he tried to infiltrate an Israeli military base in order to carry out an attack against soldiers.

Taweel, from the Syrian Druze village of Hader, was jailed in 2008 for drug smuggling, the Prisons Service said. A spokesman for the service said it was not yet clear when they would be released.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Alexander Smith and Ros Russell

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