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Israel frees two prisoners as 'goodwill' for return of soldier's remains from Syria

The men, including one jailed for spying for Damascus, were freed in connection with the repatriation of Zachary Baumel's body
Sidqi al-Maqt after being released from Negev prison, south of Israel (Screengrab)

Israel on Friday released two 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 Syrian town in the occupied Golan Heights.

Sidqi al-Maqt, 53, was freed in 2012 after a 27-year sentence for security offences and was rearrested three years later after he filmed the transfer of people wounded from battle in Syria to Israel for a report that was aired on Syrian television.

He was sentenced in 2017 to 14 years in prison for further security offenses, including spying and contacting a foreign agent.

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.

Refusal to travel to Syrian-held territory

Both men were freed "before the end of their imprisonment" in coordination with the Israeli military, the Israel's Prisons Service said. 

Abu Salah had been due to remain behind bars until 2023, the AFP news agency reported.

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According to Israeli media, the release of Maqt and Abu Saleh was delayed because the two men wanted to return to the town of Majdal Shams, rather than travel to Syrian-held territory.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Maqt had been released in August 2012 after 27 years in Israeli detention.

"He was re-arrested on 25 February 2015… after he documented cooperation between the Israeli occupying army and the terrorists of the Nusra Front," it said, referring to Syria's then al-Qaeda affiliate.

After midnight, SANA said Abu Saleh had arrived at his birthplace of Majdal Shams. 

Maqt was also expected to return to Majdal Shams, the Reuters news agency reported.

Body discovered by Russian special forces

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'

- Sidqi al-Maqt, released prisoner

"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.

SANA quoted Maqt as saying that he "looks forward to the liberation of all Syrians".

Some 23,000 Syrian Druze still live in the part of the Golan Heights Israel seized from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognised by the international community. 

The Druze residents 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.