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Israel releases man convicted of spying for Syria

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Majdal Shams (AFP)

Israel on Friday released two prisoners -- one of whom was convicted of spying for Syria -- as part of a swap deal brokered by Russia.

Sidqi al-Maqt, from the Druze community in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, was jailed in 2015 to 11 years for spying, treason, contact with a foreign agent and transfer of information to the Syrian government.

He had already spent several years behind bars in Israel for spying.

"Security prisoner Sidqi Al-Maqt will be released tomorrow (Friday) January 10, before the scheduled end of his imprisonment," Israel's prison authority said late Thursday.

Authorities also announced the early release of another Golan resident, Amal Abu Saleh, who was jailed over the killing of a Syrian who crossed the Israeli border. He had been due to remain behind bars until 2023.

The pair returned on Friday to the town of Majdal Shams in the annexed Golan Heights, where they were paraded through the streets on horseback.

Maqt was carried on the shoulders of fellow Druze, while the crowd sang and clapped.

The early releases are a "gesture of goodwill" after the repatriation to Israel last year of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 war in Lebanon, the prisons authority said.

Israeli authorities had promised the release of two Syrian prisoners after the repatriation of the remains.

According to Israeli media, the release of Maqt and Abu Saleh was delayed because the two men wanted to return to Majdal Shams rather than travel to Syrian-held territory.

The duo wore Syrian flag scarves and stood in front of a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad displayed in the town.

Maqt told Syrian state news agency SANA his release was "without conditions and that is a victory of the will of the Syrians over the will of the occupier".

SANA said Maqt had been released in August 2012 after 27 years in Israeli detention.

"He was re-arrested on February 25, 2015... after he documented cooperation between the Israeli occupying army and the terrorists of Al-Nusra Front," it said, referring to Syria's then Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Some 23,000 Druze still live in the part of the Golan Heights Israel seized from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognised by most of the international community.

The majority still consider themselves Syrian.

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