White Helmet rescuers evacuated from Syria

Geneva Stokes
July 24, 2018

Some 800 people were evacuated to Jordan via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overnight, Israeli media say.

The Syrian government has condemned a multilateral operation to evacuate hundreds of rescue workers from the war-torn country as a "criminal process" meant to destabilise Syria.

A Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman said the kingdom had allowed the United Nations to arrange the entry and passage of 800 Syrian civil defence workers. said their lives were in danger after a government offensive that regained rebel-held parts of southern Syria.

Separately on Sunday, Israel evacuated hundreds of White Helmets rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces to Jordan for resettlement in Western countries.

The White Helmets are a group of volunteer first responders working in areas under rebel control in Syria - providing necessary services like ambulance, medical, firefighting, and rubble clearing.

"The civilians were evacuated from the war zone in southern Syria due to an immediate threat to their lives", the IDF said on its Twitter account, describing the move as "an exceptional humanitarian gesture".

Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a foreign ministry official, said the evacuation "exposed the true nature of the organisation known as the White Helmets", calling it a risk to stability and security "because of its terrorist nature".

The White Helmets "used to see death while doing our work saving lives from underneath airstrikes and barrel bombs". The ministry's spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said the Syrians would remain in Jordan for three months.

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Informed tentatively earlier this month that there was a possibility of evacuation, White Helmets interested in taking part submitted their names for vetting by worldwide actors involved in negotiations and evacuations.

The statement, however, did not mention the group by name at the time, but German tabloid Bild said some 800 members of the "White Helmets" were expected to be brought to Jordan through Israel to be reportedly resettled later in the UK, Canada, and Germany.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others requested Israel's assistance in the evacuations of "people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger".

The Syrian government and Russian Federation view the White Helmets as "agents" of foreign powers and have regularly accused them of staging rescue missions or chemical attacks.

Its activation came after Israel on two separate occasions this month fired Patriot missiles at incoming drones from Syria.

What have Israel and Jordan said?

Damascus believes that the White Helmets are linked to the Jabhat al-Nusra terror organization (outlawed in Russia) and act in its interests.The United States has been funding the White Helmets since 2013, providing more than $33 mln to them. It says refugees should not be coerced into returning.

The source said numerous rescuers and their families had made risky journeys across a war zone to reach the evacuation point.

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