Hundreds of White Helmet search and rescue volunteers and their families have been rescued from Syria via Israel in a secret overnight operation backed by the UK.
The group will be resettled in Canada and Germany, and the UK after diplomatic efforts to secure safe passage for the group, who were stranded in the volatile Golan Heights region on the border with Israel.
The group of more than 400, including women and children, was evacuated from Syria into Israel late Saturday night under cover of darkness, in an unprecedented operation few knew about until after its successful completion.
Uncertainty still clouds the situation, with initial reports Sunday morning saying 800 Syrians had entered Jordan. Jordanian officials on Sunday afternoon revised that number to 422. With a lack of clarity over how many White Helmets entered Israel and how many went on to enter Jordan, there are fears for any rescuers and their families left behind.
The group now inside Jordan is under guard in a secure location. The country has received assurances they will be resettled through the UN’s refugee agency within three months.
The last-minute rescue of the famed first responders, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence, came as a result of discreet high-level negotiations between the US, UK, and allies, spurred by fear for their immediate safety working in opposition areas under heavy regime bombardment.
With opposition-held territory dwindling by the day, the group had gathered in the shadow of Israel’s border fence, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians have sought safety from airstrikes.
The Israeli military, which facilitated the group’s passage from the border area outside the Golan Heights into Israel, called the transfer of the group “an exceptional humanitarian effort.”
Over nearly five years, Israeli soldiers have evolved a slick, highly choreographed cross-border routine, whereby the Golan fence is open and pre-approved Syrians are permitted through, one by one, under the gaze of Israeli sharpshooters in night-vision goggles.
It is thought that the White Helmets and their families entered Israel this way, though never before has a cross-border mission facilitated the entry of so many Syrians at once.
“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. We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible,” said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt in a joint statement.
Q&A | Syrian Civil Defence, aka The White Helmets
The MPs cited the more than 115,000 lives thought to have been saved by the White Helmets, who they called “brave and selfless”.
A message from a member of the White Helmet group inside Jordan said most of those rescued expected to be relocated to Canada.
There was no confirmation of how many of the group the UK had agreed to take. Jordan, which already hosts at least 600,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees, says it is unable to accept any more Syrian refugees.
Despite this, the country has also recently offered temporary access to a group of Al Jazeera journalists spirited out of southern Syria in the hours before the Assad government reasserted control of the border.
The White Helmets are expected to follow a similar process to the journalists, remaining at a hotel in Amman, closely monitored by the country’s security services, until they leave on one-way tickets to new lives in the UK, Germany or Canada.
Israel officially maintains a non-intervention policy on Syria but has offered humanitarian aid through its border fence and permitted the entry of more than 3,000 Syrians for medical treatment since 2013 as part of Operation Good Neighbour.
The Western-funded White Helmets operate in opposition-controlled areas of Syria, digging people out of the wreckage typically left behind by barrel bombs and airstrikes. They gained worldwide renown in 2016 when a British documentary on the group won an Academy Award.
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