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International operation evacuates White Helmets rescue workers from Syria

About 800 members of Syria's White Helmets civil defense group and their families were evacuated via Israel to Jordan on July 22. (Video: Reuters)

BEIRUT — An international operation to rescue more than a hundred Syrian aid workers and their families escorted hundreds of civilians through Israel and Jordan under the cover of darkness Sunday as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces prepared to take control of the remaining rebel-held areas of southwest Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the operation had been carried out because of an “immediate threat” to the rescue workers’ lives and that it had been coordinated with the United States and several European nations. Jordan said later that 422 Syrian citizens had crossed its border and that they would be resettled as refugees in several Western countries.

The White Helmets rescue workers — most of them women — had been among tens of thousands of civilians packed into a final pocket of opposition-held territory along Syria’s border with Israel as rebels there struck a surrender deal with the government. 

Under the terms of the agreement, militants who do not wish to reconcile with the state are being bused to northern Syria, where they will join more than 2 million people, about half of them displaced from other areas, in the final zone of opposition control. 

But fears for the rescue workers, who have often been targeted while racing to sites of government bombings, had been growing for weeks.

The Syrian government views the group as a “terrorist” organization because it works in areas controlled by the country’s armed opposition, and White Helmets have been pulled from buses by pro-government forces during previous evacuations of opposition-held territory before disappearing into the state’s notorious network of prisons. 

“It was an operation to rescue the rescuers,” said one person with knowledge of the mission who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss its details. “They were in a terrible state. They’d been on the move for days, having to rely on really scant information. Even hours before, they didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The unprecedented operation came perilously close to failure on multiple occasions through the night, people with knowledge of the matter said. An initial plan to leave through three separate crossings was thwarted when Islamic State forces took over one of the positions, leaving part of the group trapped and unable to reach the border. Their fate remained uncertain Sunday.

Eventually, the rescue workers and their families — fragile and exhausted — crossed the Israeli border on foot as searchlights lit up the night sky. They were then taken by bus through northern Israel to Jordan, where they were met by representatives of the United Nations’ refu­gee agency. 

Still formally at war with Syria, Israel has periodically waded into the conflict to curtail Iran’s growing influence in the region or deal with spillover from battles along its border. But despite international pleas, it has consistently pushed back against international pressure to take in refugees, even as neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have together accepted millions of Syrian civilians. 

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had been approached by President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several other world leaders, who asked for help with the evacuation of White Helmets in “mortal danger.”

“At the same time, we are not ceasing to act in Syria against Iran’s military buildup there,” he said.

After more than seven years of conflict, Syrian government forces are back in control of most of the country, and the battle against rebel groups is almost over. Syrian state media on Sunday framed the dramatic rescue mission as part of an international conspiracy, highlighting the group’s Western funding and saying that countries involved in the mission had given safe passage to “terrorists” from Syrian soil.

In a joint statement, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt paid tribute to the rescue workers’ “brave and selfless work” and said the White Helmets organization was believed to have saved more than 100,000 lives during the course of Syria’s war. 

“We judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” the pair said.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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