Hundreds of aid workers of the ‘White Helmet’ civil defence group and their families were evacuated from Syria early Sunday in an international operation that transported them through Israel and into Jordan as the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad closed in.
The operation to remove the rescue workers from the province of Quneitra took place at the request of Britain, Germany and Canada with a view to resettling the evacuees in the West on humanitarian grounds.
Jordan said 422 people were brought from southwestern 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 rescue workers have been lauded in the West for their heroism but the Syrian regime accuses the group of being a propaganda tool for the West and aligned with militant groups, an accusation lacking in evidence.
The evacuees will be kept in a “closed” location in Jordan and resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months
Around 800 people were expected to leave in the operation but it was hampered by Syrian government checkpoints and the activity of ISIS-affiliated militants in the area.
Muhannad, a member of the White Helmets in southwestern Syria who was unable to reach Quneitra as part of the evacuation, told The National that around 260 civil defence workers left in the evacuation, alongside relatives that brought the number to around 500 in total. He said the prospect of regime retaliation has forced the group's members to retreat to safer areas or flee.
“When the negotiations took place with the Russians, the negotiators could not give us clear answers about our fate. There were no guarantees about our safety,” he said.
The organisation has been told that it was a one-time evacuation, but its members are lobbying for more to be allowed to escape the regime advances.
“We are making pleas for humanitarian reasons to evacuate the rest in Deraa,” he continued, referencing the neighbouring province to Quneitra.
The Syrian government is now accusing those remaining of collaborating with Israel and threatening that they “will be executed” for their dealings with the country that Syria has long warred with.
“We want to leave to any safe place and we want to be evacuated quickly,” Muhannad said of the dozens of rescue workers who remain trapped in southwestern Syria.
White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuated workers had arrived in Jordan after being "surrounded in a dangerous region".
He told The National that the relocated people had been encircled in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, but did not elaborate on the exact numbers of those moved.
He wrote on Twitter that the White Helmets will release an official statement on the matter on Monday.
German weekly magazine Bild, the first to break the news of the evacuation, quoted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as saying: "Humanity dictates that many of these brave first-aiders should now find protection and refuge, some of them in Germany."
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” during a meeting of foreign ministers at the Nato leaders' summit in Brussels a week ago.
The White Helmets, founded in 2013 amid Syria’s bloody civil war, have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in opposition-held zones along the fronts of Syria's seven-year conflict.
Since its formation, when Syria's conflict was nearing its third year, more than 200 of its volunteers have died and another 500 have been wounded.
The group's motto – "To save one life is to save all of humanity" – is drawn from a verse in the Quran, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.
Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.
The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt confirmed the operation in a joint statement that praised the “brave and selfless work” of the group.
“We judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” they said.
Last year, a Netflix production called The White Helmets won an Academy Award for the best short documentary.
A second film on the group, named Last Men in Aleppo, was this year nominated for an Oscar.
This story contains additional reporting from Reuters