300 White Helmet rescue workers still trapped in Syria

Efforts to evacuate nearly 300 White...

Posted: Jul 23, 2018 10:18 PM
Updated: Jul 23, 2018 10:18 PM

Efforts to evacuate nearly 300 White Helmet members, left stranded in southern Syria after they were unable to reach an evacuation point in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, have failed thus far, the volunteer rescue group told CNN Monday.

"Syrian regime checkpoints did not allow the majority of us to reach the evacuation point," Abu Mohmmad, a White Helmets volunteer, said. "The situation is getting worse by the minute, especially after the batch of White Helmets who have managed to leave yesterday morning, the regime is looking for us."

Israel assisted with the evacuation Sunday of hundreds of the rescue workers and their family members, but the remaining group couldn't make it to the evacuation point due to heavy fighting between ISIS and the Syrian regime, the White Helmets volunteers told CNN. That fighting has intensified in recent days as Syria tries to eradicate the last remaining ISIS pockets in the southern part of the country.

"Our names were on the evacuation list from the beginning. ... We tried by all means, but the roads were not safe," White Helmets member Abu Laith told CNN. "We are currently appealing to the world and don't know our fate. Our situation is very miserable. We are besieged."

Another White Helmets volunteer, Mohammad Abdallah, told CNN he was told to cross to the Golan Heights without their families, "which was something rejected by us because the retribution by the Syrian regime and its allied militias is a bigger (risk to) our families."

"We are now 300 volunteer members, men and women, living in constant fear and constant desperation," Abdallah added.

US, some European countries requested evacuation

The Syrians evacuated Sunday were transferred to Jordan via Israel, at the request of the United States and some European countries, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement after the operation. Israel described the move as an "exceptional humanitarian gesture," adding that it "continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict."

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

The Syrian regime described the Sunday evacuation of White Helmet volunteers with Israeli assistance as a "criminal operation" that has revealed "the terrorist nature" of the group, the official news agency SANA reported Monday, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official.

The transferred Syrians will remain in a restricted area in Jordan for the time being, Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mohammad al-Kayed told the Jordanian state-run Petra news agency, before onward transfer to Britain, Germany and Canada within the next three months.

Jordan had originally said 800 Syrians were evacuated and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted on Sunday that the original agreement was for 800 but that they later settled at 422.

"For humanitarian reasons, Jordan gave the United Nations permission to organize the passage of Syrians who entered the Occupied Golan after Britain, Germany and Canada presented a legally binding pledge to resettle them after three months," Safadi tweeted Sunday. "The number requested was 800 but the actual number settled at 422," he added.

Remaining White Helmets in danger

"We are still in danger," Abu Muhanad, another White Helmet member, told CNN. "Saving lives is the biggest crime we are charged with; now we are called terrorists because we save lives."

He says they are between a rock and a hard place: considered "terrorists" by the regime, they don't have any bargaining chips, unlike the rebels, who have their weapons. Moreover, now that Israel has helped the evacuation, they face a new charge of being "collaborators with Israel."

Through videos, pictures, and social media, the White Helmets are widely seen as having played an important role in showing the international community the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Their volunteers have gone into war-stricken areas, searching for survivors, winning them support from many countries, including the United States.

The White Helmets "used to see death while doing our work saving lives from underneath airstrikes and barrel bombs. Now we see death in a different way -- not knowing what will happen to us," Muhanad added.

Canada will resettle up to 50 White Helmets and their families, a Canadian official with direct knowledge of the resettlement efforts told CNN. The total number of people could be over 200, nearly half of the Syrians evacuated into Jordan on Sunday.

However, taking 50 families may not be necessary as there have been multiple offers from allies to resettle the volunteer rescuers, according to the official.

Germany said Monday they would be taking eight White Helmet refugees. The UK confirmed to CNN they will offer asylum to some of the rescue workers but have not given any numbers.

"The ongoing military offensive and ever greater territorial gains by the Syrian regime in southern Syria have created a clear and present danger for the White Helmets and their families," German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer said in a statement Monday.

"These people, who have risked their lives to aid and rescue the civilian population, and to reduce their suffering, are now themselves in need of help. Granting them protection is, I believe, a humanitarian duty and an expression of my policy to uphold humanity and order in migration policy. "

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