Russia: We helped Israel look for bodies of soldiers in Syria

Moscow says one of its officers was injured in an attempt to locate the remains of IDF servicemen in Islamic State-held territory

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Russian defense ministry spokesman  Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov gives a briefing on the downing of a Russian Il-20 military plane near Syria, on September 23, 2018. (Screen capture: Russia Today)
Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov gives a briefing on the downing of a Russian Il-20 military plane near Syria, on September 23, 2018. (Screen capture: Russia Today)

Russia on Sunday claimed that its military worked with Israel on an operation to locate the remains of fallen IDF soldiers inside Islamic State-held territory in Syria.

The Russian defense ministry did not specify when or where the alleged operation took place. However, it appeared to be connected to searches in Syria reported earlier this year to find the bodies of three Israeli servicemen killed in the first Lebanon War.

“Israel appealed to Russia with a request for help finding the remains of Israeli servicemen located at specific coordinates in Syria. The search was organized after Russia agreed to the operation with our Syrian partners,” said Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

The Israeli military refused to comment on the matter.

The Russian officer made the remarks at a press conference in which he blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses following an Israeli airstrike in the area last week.

Konashenkov offered the search operation as an example for the ways that Russia has helped Israel since it moved large numbers of troops into Syria in late 2015.

“This special search operation was conducted in a combat area controlled by ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group.

“Terrorists suddenly attacked the Russian servicemen involved in the operation. One Russian officer was wounded. Despite that, Russia was willing to carry on with the operation,” Konashenkov said.

In May, an official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command terror group claimed that Islamic State members and other insurgents excavated graves in a Damascus cemetery looking for the remains of three Israeli soldiers who have been missing in action for 36 years.

Missing-in-action Israel Defense Forces soldiers Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)

Their goal was to transfer the bodies to Israel, said Anwar Raja of the PFLP-GC, although it was not clear in what context or for what purpose.

Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel have been missing in action since the 1982 first Lebanon War. As a rule, the Israeli military continues searching for the remains of all IDF soldiers even decades after they go missing.

The graves were said to be located in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, over which Syrian troops regained control earlier this year from the IS terror group after a month-long battle.

Raja did not say whether the insurgents had found any bodies; nor did he identify the corpses that were sought.

In June 1982, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and five were captured in a battle near the village of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, including Feldman, Katz and Baumel.

Two of the captured soldiers were returned to Israel alive, but the remaining three are still officially missing in action because no conclusive proof has been presented that they died.

Times of Israel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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