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U.S., Russia Differ On Evacuation Of Syrian White Helmets


Syrian rescuers known as White Helmets recover bodies in Zardana following air strikes in June.

The United States and Russia hailed the evacuation by the Israeli military of a Syrian volunteer civil organization from a volatile border area near the Golan Heights, although the two powers saw the operation in sharply differing ways.

The U.S. State Department on July 22 issued a statement saying it “welcomes the safe evacuation of more than 400 members of the Syrian Civil Defense” -- also known as the White Helmets.

“We are glad that these ‎brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives, are now out of harm's way.”

“We renew our call on the [Syria] regime and Russia to abide by their commitments, end the violence, and protect all Syrian civilians, including humanitarians such as the White Helmets, in areas formerly part of the southwest deescalation zone and throughout Syria,” it added.

Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in the Netherlands welcomed the departure of the “notorious” White Helmets.

"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 wrote on Twitter.

The White Helmets work exclusively in rebel-held areas and receive donations from several Western governments, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Its members say they are neutral, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and his Russian ally accuse the White Helmets of being tools of their international donors.

Western powers have accused Syria of attacking rebel-held areas with illegal chemical weapons. Syria and Russia claim the Western-backed rebels and their supporters have staged the attacks in an attempt to frame Assad’s government.

The evacuation of the White Helmet members and their families came overnight on July 21-22 as they fled advancing Syrian government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement on July 22 that he aided the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders based on fears the volunteer workers' lives were in danger.

"A few days ago, President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets," Netanyahu said.

Reuters quoted a Jordanian government source as saying that 422 people had been brought from Syria over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan. Earlier reports had said some 800 people had been evacuated.

Those rescued will be kept in a "closed" location in Jordan before being resettled in Britain, Germany, and Canada within three months, the source told Reuters.

The U.S. statement said that “we deeply appreciate Israel's role in facilitating the transit of the White Helmets and their family members. We commend Jordan's generosity in supporting their processing by UNHCR and the commitment of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany to provide the White Helmets and their families with permanent homes.”

Russia and Iran back Assad's government in Syria's seven-year civil war, while the United States supports antigovernment rebels. Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups have also been involved in the fighting but have mainly been driven from their strongholds.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP
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