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Trapped Syria White Helmets rescuers demand evacuation

By AFP - Jul 24,2018 - Last updated at Jul 24,2018

In this file photo taken on April 8, 2017, members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa (AFP photo)

DARAA — More than a dozen White Helmets rescue workers demonstrated Tuesday in Syria’s Daraa city to demand safe passage out of the country’s war-ravaged south, after scores of their colleagues were evacuated. 

Israel on Sunday enabled more than 400 people — opposition-linked White Helmets rescuers and their families — to flee a pocket of southwest Syria as government forces bore down on them.

But hundreds more remain trapped in the south, fearing reprisals from approaching regime troops.

Some are stuck in the southern half of Daraa city, technically still held by rebels although a surrender deal is set to see it return to regime control.

About 15 of them gathered there on Tuesday, some in their signature white helmets, holding up handwritten Arabic signs demanding to be rescued. 

“When we joined the civil defence, we were volunteering to save people,” said Alwan Al Masri, who has worked with the rescuers as a firefighter in Daraa for two years. 

“Now that we’ve reached a point where we need rescuing, there’s no one to do it?” the 25-year-old told AFP. 

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, saves those wounded in attacks on rebel zones.

It said 98 volunteers were ferried out of Syria at the weekend along with 324 of their relatives. 

They were taken to Jordan and from there will be resettled to western nations including France, Britain, Germany, and Canada, most of whom have funded the rescue force.

“Where are the organisations that used to stand with us? Where are the donor countries?” asked Masri, adding that he and his colleagues feared regime forces would lash out at the rescuers once they took over Daraa.

A joint statement from Tuesday’s demonstration said an estimated 650 members remain in the south, but the group has said there are no plans for a second evacuation. 

Damascus slammed the weekend rescue as a “criminal operation”, repeating its accusation that the White Helmets are a front for extremists. 

“Our message to the regime is that we’re not terrorists,” said HassanFarouk Mahameed, 50, head of the White Helmets centre in Daraa city. 

“We are of, and for, the Syrian people. We served civil society and no one else.”

Mahameed said he tried to communicate with White Helmets leadership on a new evacuation, but nothing came of it.

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