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Israel returns 2 shepherds to Syria amid exchange reports

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JERUSALEM (AP) The Israeli army on Thursday said it has returned two shepherds who crossed into Israeli territory back to Syria, a development that an Israeli official said was part of a prisoner exchange that Syria had reported the day before.

Syria’s official SANA news agency said on Wednesday that with the help of Russian mediation, Syria had negotiated the release of two Syrians held by Israel in exchange for an Israeli woman who entered Syria by mistake. The two shepherds were not mentioned in that report.

The two Syrians were identified as Nihal al-Makt, who had been under house arrest in her Israeli-annexed Golan Heights village, and Ziyab Qahmouz, arrested in 2016 and serving 14 years in Israeli prisons.

Al-Makt, SANA said, was serving a three-year suspended sentence in addition to reporting daily for a year to Israeli authorities. She said the restrictions were lifted on Wednesday and speaking on Syrian TV Al-Ikhbariya via Skype, she said it was now free.

Qahmouz reportedly refused to leave Israeli custody as he wanted to return to his village in the Golan and not be deported to Syria. According to the Israeli side, al-Makt also refused to be deported to Syria. The report did not say what charges the two Syrians faced.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Eastern War and annexed the territory in 1981, an action not widely recognized internationally.

In exchange for the two, Syria will release from custody a woman identified by the Israeli media as a 25-year-old originally from the ultra-orthodox residence of Modiin Ili.

The Israeli military said the two shepherds, whom it did not identify, had been captured in the Golan Heights in recent weeks after crossing from Syria and that their release was ordered by the government.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, said the release of the shepherds was part of the deal with Syria.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

Syria’s SANA later said two other Syrians were likely to return the two shepherds home to their villages in Syria’s Quneitra province on Thursday, following a mediated exchange that began the day before. They were identified as Mohamad Hussein and Tareq al-Obeidan.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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