Israel evacuates 'White Helmets' rescuers to Jordan in face of Syria advance

Israel evacuates 'White Helmets' rescuers to Jordan in face of Syria advance

UN peacekeepers
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

AMMAN: Israel evacuated hundreds of 'White Helmets' rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces to Jordan on Sunday (Jul 22) for resettlement in Western countries.

Jordan's foreign ministry announced in a statement that the kingdom received 422 Syrian citizens, after earlier saying it had given permission for 800 to arrive.

Foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said Britain, Germany and Canada had initially agreed to accept around 827 rescuers and their relatives, but eventually settled on a figure of 422.

He said they would be allowed to stay in Jordan for a period of time not exceeding three months.

A Canadian government source told AFP that a second group of White Helmets and their relatives was also supposed to be evacuated but "could not reach the border because of the situation on the ground."

The group is still in Syria and it is not certain that a new effort to bring them out can be mounted due to the "precarious" situation there, according to the source.

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues the wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory

The Israeli military said it had transferred the rescue workers and their families to a neighbouring country, adding that the operation was "exceptional".

"A few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

"These are people who save lives and now find themselves in deadly danger, therefore I approved bringing them through Israel to another country as an important humanitarian step."

White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being "surrounded in a dangerous region".

They had been encircled in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which respectively border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, he told AFP.

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres of the Golan from Syria in 1967, in a move never recognised internationally.

The United States praised Israel and Jordan for facilitating the evacuations and Britain, Canada and Germany for agreeing to give the evacuees new homes.

"We are glad that these brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives, are now out of harm's way," the US State Department said of the White Helmets.

Britain's Foreign Office said it had helped facilitate the overnight evacuations.

"White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection," it said.

'SAVE ALL OF HUMANITY'

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families.

The move was "an expression of my stance of ensuring humanity and order in migration policy," he said.

Canada will take in up to 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, totalling up to 250 people, officials said.

"A group of core countries have committed to resettle a number of White Helmets. Canada is resettling up to 50 members and their families, and is working with the international community to assess remaining needs," said Canada's foreign affairs spokeswoman Elizabeth Reid.

Ottawa confirmed that Trudeau spoke to Netanyahu Saturday about "the regional security situation and the evacuation of White Helmets from Syria".

Israel's Haaretz daily said the evacuees also included orphans who had been injured in the Syrian fighting.

It was unclear how many White Helmet volunteers remained in both the Daraa and Quneitra provinces after the evacuations.

But a volunteer in Daraa city, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had decided to stay despite being given the choice to leave.

"It's our country and we have a right to live in it in safety," he told AFP, however adding he was among a minority who wished to remain.

"We are first and foremost a humanitarian organisation, not a military one, or a terrorist one as the regime alleges."

The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in opposition-held zones along various fronts of Syria's seven-year conflict.

Since its formation, when Syria's conflict was nearing its third year, more than 250 of its volunteers have been killed.

The group's motto - "To save one life is to save all of humanity" - is drawn from a verse in the Koran, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.

THOUSANDS FLEE

Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.

On Jun 19, Syrian government forces launched a Russia-backed offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Just a month later, regime forces have regained control of most of these two provinces through a combination of deadly bombardment and Moscow-brokered surrender deals.

Militants are not party to these deals, and Russian planes bombarded a holdout of the Islamic State group in Daraa province overnight, a Britain-based war monitor said.

More than 20,000 civilians have escaped bombardment on the IS-held corner in the past 24 hours, fleeing into regime-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Source: AFP/de

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