Two Syrian prisoners held in Israeli jails will be released in an exchange deal with Syria for the remains of IDF soldiers, a London-based Arabic newspaper reported Tuesday.
According to the report by Asharq Al-Awsat, family members of Sidqi al-Maqt and Amar Abu Salah, jailed for espionage and manslaughter, respectively, were surprised the two were not released on Sunday in exchange for the return to Israel nearly a month ago of the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel.
The family members contacted the Syrian regime and were told that the deal for the two men was not yet completed, the report said.
Maqt, from the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, was sentenced to 14 years behind bars in 2017 for spying on IDF positions on behalf of Syria intelligence. He was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of passing photographs and written reports of IDF positions to Syrian intelligence officials.
Abu Salah pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2016 for the death of a Syrian fighter whose ambulance was attacked by a mob in Israel as he and another man were transferred for medical treatment.
The Asharq Al-Awsat report was based on information from sources in Majdal Shams. Sources told Ynet that Abu Salah and Maqt were both residents of that town.
Israel released two other Syrian prisoners back to Syria on Sunday afternoon as a “goodwill gesture” to Damascus following the return nearly a month ago of the remains of Baumel, who was presumed killed in the 1982 Lebanon War.
The two men were identified by Israel as a drug smuggler and a Fatah operative jailed 14 years ago for an attempted attack on IDF soldiers.
Hamis Ahmad, a Fatah operative from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, was jailed in 2005 for an attempt to infiltrate into Israel and attack an Israel Defense Forces base, and was to be held until 2023.
The two had their sentences commuted last week by President Reuven Rivlin to allow for their early release.
Israel confirmed on Saturday that the two Syrians would be released after the return of the remains of Baumel, which were brought from Syria to Israel about a month ago via Russia.
Though Baumel and comrades Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were generally believed to have been killed in the battle, there was also speculation and reports that they were captured by the Syrian military and brought to Damascus. Feldman and Katz remain officially listed as missing in action, though they are also presumed killed.
Baumel was buried in an emotional ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on April 4.
Israeli officials have insisted that there was no prisoner exchange involved in the return of Baumel’s remains, but Russian officials who helped mediate the return have said otherwise.
Shortly before the April 9 elections in Israel, a senior Israeli diplomatic official said Russia’s help would not have a “diplomatic price tag.” In recent days, too, a senior Israeli government official said the prisoner release was a “goodwill gesture” that was only decided upon in recent days, and had not been a precondition for Baumel’s return.
The Israeli statement came after Russia’s envoy to Syria announced the prisoner release and indicated that Israel knew there was going to be a reciprocal gesture at the time of the release of Baumel’s remains.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said on Saturday that the operation to recover Baumel’s remains only went ahead because it was deemed in Damascus’s interests as Syrian prisoners would be released from Israeli prisons in exchange.
“This action was not unilateral — Israel made a decision, which it will have to carry out later, to release some of the Syrian citizens who are in Israeli jails,” added Lavrentiev on Saturday morning. “This was an act of interest for the Syrian side. We will not do anything that is contrary to Syria’s interests, but only things that serve them.”
Syria has vehemently denied that Damascus aided in the search and recovery operation to return Baumel to Israel.
During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that “Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military.”
Public involvement in the return of the remains to Israel would be embarrassing for the Syrian government, which is formally at war with Israel.
Putin is a key backer of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, helping him quash a massive civil war over the last several years, and has also maintained mostly positive ties with Israel.