Syrian 'White Helmets' flee to Jordan with Israeli, Western help

JERUSALEM/AMMAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families fled advancing government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan overnight with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers, officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a brief video statement on Sunday he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders - and there had been fears that the workers’ lives were at risk.

The group, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, has been widely hailed in the West and credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies.

Its members, known for their white helmets, say they are neutral. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Russia, have dismissed them as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of Islamist-led insurgents. There was no immediate response from Damascus on Sunday.

A Jordanian government source said 422 people were brought from Syria, over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, down from a figure of 800 announced earlier by the foreign ministry in Amman.

The evacuees will be kept in a “closed” location in Jordan and resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months, the source said.

A second non-Jordanian source familiar with the agreement said the original plan had been to evacuate 800 people, but only 422 made it out as operations were hampered by government checkpoints and the expansion of Islamic State in the area.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al Safadi was quoted in a foreign ministry statement as saying he had discussed in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the details of the mission to bring the rescue workers to Jordan.

Syria and its Russian allies have launched an offensive on rebels in the sensitive southwestern border zone.

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Netanyahu said Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others had spoken to him recently asking for help in extracting the White Helmets. “The lives of these people, who have saved lives, were now in danger. I therefore authorised their transfer via Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian gesture,” Netanyahu said.

Trump did not mention the operation during a series of tweets on Sunday.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it welcomed the operation and renewed its call on “the Assad regime and Russia to abide by their commitments, end the violence, and protect all Syrian civilians.”

In the first public statement by the United Nations, the UNHCR acknowledged it had received 422 Syrians who were seeking asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain at the request of these countries. The U.N. refugee body praised Jordan’s move to give them temporary sanctuary. [L5N1UI0MC]

“While in Jordan, UNHCR in close collaboration with the involved governments, is supporting their temporary stay in anticipation of their onward relocation to third countries,” the statement said.

Britain hailed the evacuation, saying it and other allies had requested it.

“Fantastic news that we - UK and friends - have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families - thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request,” tweeted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

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German weekly magazine Bild, which broke news of the evacuation and published footage of buses used to transport the Syrians across Golan, said 50 of them would be granted asylum by Berlin.

“Humanity dictates that many of these brave first-aiders should now find protection and refuge, some of them in Germany,” it quoted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as saying.

A spokeswoman for the German interior ministry said Berlin would take in eight White Helmets plus their families. It was not immediately clear whether that amounted to the same 50 people.

A Canadian Foreign Ministry statement on Saturday said the White Helmets “have witnessed vicious atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its backers”. It added: “We feel a deep moral responsibility to these brave and selfless people.”

Russia’s embassy in the Netherlands welcomed the White Helmets’ departure. “Definitely there will be less chances of new so-called #CW (chemical weapon) attacks in Syria after forced evacuation by the collective West of the notorious #WhiteHelmets,” it tweeted.

Damascus and its allies have accused rebels and their supporters of staging chemical attacks in an attempt to frame the government. Western powers have accused Syria of attacking rebel-held areas with illegal chemical weapons.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Dominic Evans in Istanbul and Michelle Martin and Holger Hansen in Berlin, and Denis Pinchuk and Mary Milliken in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Dale Hudson and Andrew Heavens