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Israel evacuates hundreds of White Helmets to Jordan in face of Syria advance

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported air strikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. Jordan said on July 22, 2018 that it has taken in 800 Syrian White Helmets rescuers who had been evacuated by Israel from Syria as they were threatened by advancing regime forces in the south of the war-ravaged country. Jordan plans to transfer them to the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, are a network of first responders who rescue wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or blasts in rebel-held territory. Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP

Israel evacuated hundreds of White Helmets rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces to Jordan on Sunday 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.

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 (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967, in a move never recognised internationally.

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, the country’s public broadcaster CBC said citing senior officials.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” at last week’s NATO summit.

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 June 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.

Jihadists 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.

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