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Israel to release two Syrian prisoners following return of soldier's remains

Russia's envoy to Syria confirms move in what an Israeli official described as a 'goodwill gesture'
Zachary Baumel, alongside two other soldiers, went missing in 1982 at the age of 21 (Reuters)

Israel is set to release two Syrian prisoners after the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since 1982 were returned home earlier this month, a Russian envoy has confirmed. 

Zachary Baumel was 21 when he was declared missing alongside two other soldiers during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

His remains were recovered by Russian special forces earlier this month from a Syrian refugee camp and returned to Israel in a pre-election boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Russia's envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, told state broadcaster RT in Arabic on Friday, that Israel had made the decision to release the Syrian citizens held in Israeli jails. 

"Israel made a decision, which it will have to carry out later, to release some of the Syrian citizens who are in Israeli jails," said Lavrentiev.

The Russian official did not go into detail about why the Syrian citizens were being held in Israel.

"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," he said.

Lavrentiev said that Baumel's remains had been recovered with the agreement of the Syrian government. 

Moscow 'pressured'

A Syrian government source told the Reuters news agency that two or more Syrian hostages 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 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.

Israeli officials refused to provide details of the prisoners it was set to release but confirmed that Russian special forces inside Syria had recovered Baumel's remains.

"Israel has decided to release two prisoners as a goodwill gesture," an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Saturday.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment.