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Israel and Syria complete a Russian-mediated prisoner exchange




Jerusalem Israel and Syria have fought several wars, never had diplomatic relations, and still oppose the sovereignty of a piece of land, the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967.

But on Thursday, the two countries shared a rare moment of indirect co-operation, taking part in a Russian-mediated prisoner exchange that saw an Israeli woman captured from Syria exchanged for two Syrian shepherds captured by Israel, the government announced. Israeli early Friday morning.

“Israel has always done and will do everything in its power to bring back our citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

The woman has not been appointed. But she is in her 20s, comes close to Jerusalem and has a history of trying to enter Israel’s neighbors illegally, an Israeli official said. She entered Syria from the ground in early February before being stopped by Syrian authorities, who quickly realized she was a civilian rather than a spy, the official said.

The exact circumstances of her entry are unclear and will be the subject of an investigation by Israeli officials upon her return.

After mediation by Russia, which is a Syrian ally with a large military presence in the country, the woman was flown to Moscow, the official said. There, she was met Thursday night by an Israeli team that included a former intelligence officer, Yaron Blum, who has a history of involvement in prisoner exchanges.

Her surrender was preceded by the release of two Syrian shepherds who had been captured by Israel after landing in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war between Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt and are home to about 20,000 Druze Arabs. Most of the territory is separated by a border fence, but it is possible to cross the border into the more mountainous part of the region, where it is difficult to build a well-fortified barrier.

Israeli officials have been communicating about the case with his Russian counterparts since at least February 8. To facilitate the exchange, Mr. Netanyahu spoke twice with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

But the possibility of an exchange was kept secret until Tuesday, for fear of jeopardizing the deal.

The Israeli woman first had to be replaced by two Israeli residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, who were held by Israeli authorities.

But one of them, Diyab Qahmuz, in prison for smuggling explosives from Lebanon to Israel, according to Israeli media, refused to be sent to Syria. The second, Nihal al-Maqt, is still subject to further questioning by Israel’s internal intelligence agency, the official said.

Syrian shepherds quickly lined up as replacements, leading to their release at a Syrian border crossing on Thursday afternoon, and the subsequent handover of the women to Moscow. It was unclear early Friday whether she had yet to leave the Russian capital to return to Israel.

The state of Israel wants to express its appreciation for the actions of the President of Russia, the office of the Israeli prime minister said in a statement.

Russia has mediated in similar episodes in the past. In 2016, Mr. Putin helped return an Israeli tank captured by Syrian troops to southern Lebanon in 1982. Three years later, the Kremlin brokered the return of the remains of a tank driver killed in the same battle, Zachary Baumel .

Isabel Kershner contributed to the report.

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