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

JERUSALEM/AMMAN, July 22 (Reuters) - Hundreds of members of Syria's "White Helmet" civil defense group 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 that he had acted on the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders.

"A few days ago, President Trump spoke to me, as did Canadian Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau and others, asking that we help to extract the White Helmets from Syria. The lives of these people, who have saved lives, were now in danger. I therefore authorized their transfer via Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian gesture," Netanyahu said.

The Syrian Civil Defense group has been widely hailed in the West and credited with saving thousands of lives by operating emergency rescue services in rebel-held areas during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies.

RELATED: Photos from Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke across the border in Syria

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Photos from Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke across the border in Syria
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Photos from Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke across the border in Syria
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows buses carrying Syrian rebel fighters and civilians travelling near the border in southwestern Syria, on their way to opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a bus carrying Syrian rebel fighters and civilians travelling near the border in southwestern Syria, on their way to opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a bus carrying Syrian rebel fighters and civilians travelling near the border in southwestern Syria, on their way to opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 22, 2018. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 22, 2018. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
UN peacekeepers look out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on July 22, 2018. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 22, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising across the border in Quneitra in southwestern Syria, as rebels destroy their arms stocks prior to their departure. - Rebel fighters and civilians began on July 20 evacuating from Quneitra province on their way to opposition territory further north in Idlib province under a surrender deal agreed between Russia and the rebels, seeing the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows Syrians packing their belongings and loading them on vehicles as they prepare to leave the village of Qahtaniyah, near the border in southwestern Syria. - The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows Syrian rebel fighters driving a pick-up truck carrying an anti-aircraft gun in the village of Qahtaniyah, near the border in southwestern Syria. - The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows Syrian children play as others prepare to leave the village of Qahtaniyah, near the border in southwestern Syria. - The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows Syrians packing their belongings and loading them on vehicles as they prepare to leave the village of Qahtaniyah, near the border in southwestern Syria. - The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone fall back under state control. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo credit should read JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)
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The group says it is politically neutral but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers have said they see the White Helmets as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of Islamist-led insurgents.

Russia welcomed the White Helmets' departure, alleging they were behind chemical weapons attacks of which Assad has been accused by Western powers and which the Syrian leader has denied.

"Definetely (sic) there will be less chances of new so-called (chemical weapons) attacks in Syria after forced evacuation by the collective West of the notorious White Helmets," Russia's embassy in the Netherlands said on Twitter.

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 added.

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.

 

"FANTASTIC NEWS"

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.

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." (Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Dominic Evans in Istanbul and Michelle Martin and Holger Hansen in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Dale Hudson)

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