Published: Tue, July 24, 2018
Global News | By Blake Casey

Israel evacuates 'White Helmets' from Syria border

Israel evacuates 'White Helmets' from Syria border

Hundreds of aid workers of the "White Helmet" civil defence group and their families were evacuated from Syria early Sunday in an global operation that transported them through Israel and into Jordan as the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad closed in.

In an unprecedented worldwide rescue operation executed before dawn on Sunday, a group of more than 400 Syrian Civil Defense workers and their family members quietly crossed the chain-linked fence along Syria's southern border and set foot into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence group, who say they are politically neutral, have been credited with saving thousands of lives, and were widely discussed as potential recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry, citing an unnamed official at the ministry, said on Monday that Damascus had previously warned about the unsafe role the White Helmets were playing in undermining the security and stability in the Arab country and in the region due to their "terrorist nature".

The Israeli Defense Forces said in a statement that the operation had been carried out due to an "immediate threat" to the rescue workers' lives.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they had acted on a request from the United States and European nations.

"These are people who saved lives and whose lives are now in danger", Netanyahu said.

Mr Hunt and Penny Mordaunt said in a joint statement: "Following a joint diplomatic effort by the United Kingdom and worldwide partners, a group of White Helmets volunteers from southern Syria and their families have been able to leave Syria for safety".

Britain's foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, praised the evacuation and thanked Israel and Jordan in a tweet.

Who are the White Helmets?

An worldwide operation to rescue more than a hundred Syrian rescue workers and their families took place early Sunday, carrying hundreds of civilians through Israel and Jordan under cover of darkness as President Bashar al-Assad's forces prepared to take control of the area.

A number of those evacuated were from the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, known as the Syrian Civil Defense.

The announcement marked the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's civil war, now in its eight year. The Israeli military clarified, however, that "Israel continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the conflict".

Israel Evacuates 800 White Helmets to Jordan in Face of Syria Advance
The opposition said the Syrian army were expected to be deployed in areas abandoned by rebels once the evacuations are completed and heavy weapons given up by rebels.

It was an unprecedented operation to provide protection and asylum to allies of Western nations in Syria's complex battlefield. Officials say Syrian troops had surrounded the White Helmets there.

They offered services where state institutions and services are non-existent. They are often targeted during attacks.

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

The Syrian government on Monday condemned the evacuation, calling it a "criminal operation" undertaken by "Israel and its tools".

Syrian state television said on Sunday an Israeli air strike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria's Hama province but caused only material damage.

Israel launched its newest air defence system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus' Russian-backed forces have been routing rebels, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called "urgent" talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They first seized the border with Jordan, squeezing the opposition in the center and progressively chipping away at areas the rebels held for years.

The Syrian government and its Russian ally have accused the White Helmets of being terrorists.

Last week, a deal was reached between the opposition in Quneitra and Russian negotiators acting on behalf of the Syrian government.

"The civilians were subsequently transferred to a neighbouring country", it said without elaborating.

Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because it is along the disengagement line with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war.

But despite the successful evacuation of more than 400 Syrians on Sunday, a number of Civil Defense workers and their families have been left behind-with some unable to reach the evacuation point in the western foothills of Syria's Quneitra province in time, and others out of reach and therefore unaware that the plan was in fact going ahead.

Air strikes by regime ally Russian Federation, meanwhile, on a southern jihadist holdout killed six civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

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