White Helmets evacuated from Golan Heights by Israeli military

A Syrian rescue worker carries a man wounded during shelling of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta town of Hammuriyeh on March 7

Officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence but known by their distinctive white helmets, members of the volunteer search-and-rescue force are hailed heroes by many, although supporters of Syrian President Bashar al Assad have sought to portray them as terrorists.

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.

Hundreds of rescue volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defence were evacuated to Jordan by Israel at the request of the United States and European powers.

Israel evacuated 800 members of the White Helmets and their families from southwestern Syria to Jordan overnight, army radio said Sunday.

Jordan's official Petra news agency said on its website the kingdom "authorised the United Nations to organise the passage of about 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan for resettlement in Western countries".

The request to evacuate the White Helmets came as Syrian troops closed in on Quneitra province, which borders Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Jordan and Lebanon.

Israel signalled it would not impede the Syrian army presence in Quneitra as long as it steered away from the demilitarised zone, and said it will continue to escalate attacks along its frontier and elsewhere in Syria where it suspects Iranian-backed forces are stationed. U.S. officials said the volunteers at the border were likely to be targeted by the government advance.

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Around 800 White Helmet rescue workers and their families have been evacuated from Syria by Israel "due to an immediate threat to their lives". Evacuation plans were accelerated after last week's North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Brussels.

Israel seized 1,200sq km (460 sq miles) of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day war and later annexed it, in a move never recognised internationally.

The agricultural area has become the main battleground in the sensitive border region after a major Russian-backed Syrian army offensive routed other rebel groups who were once backed by Washington, Jordan and Gulf states.

The group's motto - "To save one life is to save all of humanity" - is drawn from a verse in the Koran, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.

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.

Last year, the Netflix production The White Helmets won an Academy Award for best short documentary.

The first convoy of 55 buses, carrying some 2,800 people, arrived in northern Syria's opposition-held Idlib province on Saturday after rebels in Quneitra agreed to hand over medium to heavy weaponry and surrender the strategic area.



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