Israel releases two Syrian prisoners in 'goodwill gesture'

image copyrightIDF
image captionSgt Zachary Baumel's body was returned to Israel with help from Russia in April 2019.

Israel has released two Syrian prisoners as a "diplomatic goodwill gesture", following the transfer of the body of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1980s.

Sergeant First Class Zechariah Baumel, a US-born tank commander, went missing in battle during the 1982 Lebanon War.

His remains were returned to Israel with help from Russia in April 2019.

The repatriation of bodies held by Syria and Israel, who are in a state of war, happens only rarely.

Both freed Syrians were residents of a Druze village in the Syrian Golan Heights, most of which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East conflict.

Amal Abu Salah had been serving a sentence of seven years and eight months for the killing of a Syrian citizen. He was slated to be released in 2023.

Makat Sudki had been serving an 11-year sentence since 2015 for charges of betrayal, espionage, supporting terror, and contact with a hostile organisation.

He was previously released from prison in 2012 after serving a 27-year sentence.

Who was Zachary Baumel?

Sgt Baumel was one of five Israeli soldiers who went missing in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub between Israeli and Syrian forces on 11 June 1982, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Several years later, two of the captured soldiers were returned alive in prisoner exchanges with Syria and the allied Palestinian militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Sgt Baumel and two other sergeants remained unaccounted for despite the efforts of the Israeli authorities to locate them.

There were many conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts and condition of the three men over more than three decades. Some said they might have survived the fighting and been captured.

image copyrightReuters
image captionBenjamin Netanyahu said he was grateful to Vladimir Putin for helping find the grave

In 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin in locating their remains. Russia is supporting forces loyal to Syria's government in the country's civil war.

Sgt Baumel's remains were eventually "located at specific co-ordinates in Syria", a Russian military spokesman said last year.

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