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Syria: Russia digs up graves in refugee camp in search of dead Israeli spy Eli Cohen

The three-week excavation of Yarmouk cemetery is part of a search for the former Mossad agent, according to report
A picture taken on 11 April 2015, shows the damage inflicted upon a cemetery, following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces, in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus (RAMI AL-SAYED / AFP)
Damaged graves in the Yarmouk refugee camp cemetery following a bomb attack by Syrian government forces in Damascus, 11 April 2015 (Rami al-Sayed/AFP)

Russian forces in Syria have spent the past three weeks excavating a cemetery in a refugee camp in search of the body of a prominent former Israeli spy, according to the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (SOHR).

The UK-based activist group said on Tuesday that the Russians were digging up graves in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, to retrieve the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and well-known spy Eli Cohen, who was hanged in Syria’s capital in 1965.

According to the SOHR, which monitors the war in Syria, Russia has conducted DNA analyses on “a large number" of unearthed remains and intends to return Cohen to Israel if he is found.

The Syrian government has so far not commented on the exhumations, despite local resentment towards the graveyard dig, according to SOHR sources.

The search comes a few days after reports emerged that Israel had struck a deal with Syria to purchase an unknown number of Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine doses for use in Syria, in exchange for the release of an Israeli woman who had crossed the border into the country.

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Last week Israeli missiles killed at least six Syrian pro-government fighters, according to the UK-based war monitor, part of ongoing hostilities between the two countries.

Israel has recently been targeting Iranian military installations inside Syria.

The Spy

This is not the first time Yarmouk cemetery has been dug up. Syrian and Russian forces reportedly excavated graves in 2019 in a search for the missing bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in fighting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Russia subsequently handed Israel the remains of two of its deceased fighters.

Former Mossad undercover agent Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who was recently played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the series The Spy, worked his way up to become chief advisor to the Syrian defence minister before his cover was blown and he was publicly executed.

In 2019, an Israeli TV station published rumours that his body had been disinterred and was on its way back to Israel.