By Dan Williams and Suleiman Al-Khalidi
JERUSALEM/AMMAN (Reuters) – Hundreds of members of Syria’s “White Helmet” civil defence group have fled advancing government forces and been spirited over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers, officials said on Sunday.
Israel’s army said on Twitter that Washington and European governments had asked it to move the White Helmets and their families out of southwest Syria overnight as there was “an immediate threat to their lives”.
The evacuees – who operated in rebel-held areas in Syria and ran an emergency rescue service during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies – will be resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months, a Jordanian government source said.
The source said 422 people were brought from 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.
A second, non-Jordanian source familiar with the agreement said the original plan had been to evacuate 800 people, but only 422 made it out as operations were hampered by government checkpoints and the expansion of Islamic State in the area.
Members of the Syrian Civil Defense group, who say they are politically neutral, have been credited with saving thousands of lives, and were widely discussed as potential recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. A documentary about them won an Academy Award in 2017.
However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies – including Russia – have said they see the White Helmets as proxies of Islamist-led insurgents and Western-sponsored propaganda tools.
German weekly magazine Bild, which broke news of the evacuation and published footage of buses used to transport the Syrians across Golan, said 50 of them would be granted asylum by Berlin.
“Humanity dictates that many of these brave first-aiders should now find protection and refuge, some of them in Germany,” it quoted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as saying.
A spokeswoman for the German interior ministry said Berlin would take in eight White Helmets plus their families. It was not immediately clear if that amounted to the same 50 people.
Britain hailed the evacuation, saying it and other allies had requested it.
“Fantastic news that we – UK and friends – have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families – thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request,” tweeted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
A Canadian Foreign Ministry statement on Saturday said the White Helmets “have witnessed vicious atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its backers”. It added: “We feel a deep moral responsibility to these brave and selfless people.”
Israel agreed to evacuate the White Helmets “given the evident fact that Assad’s rule is again taking hold in all of Syria,” Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said in a radio interview.
He said world powers had felt the Civil Defence workers should not have to “pay the price of the Syrian regime’s enormous hatred for them”.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Dominic Evans in Istanbul and Michelle Martin and Holger Hansen in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)