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  1. ITV Report

Syria brands evacuation of White Helmets ‘criminal’

A member of the White Helmets waving to Israeli soldiers as he and his family board a bus (Israeli Defence Forces/AP) Photo: AP/Press Association Images

The Syrian government has condemned a multilateral operation to evacuate hundreds of rescue workers from the war-torn country as a “criminal process” intended to destabilise Syria.

Syrian authorities have long described the Civil Defence search-and-rescue group, which are popularly known as the White Helmets, as a terror organisation.

The group rose to prominence as it filmed its operations to rescue civilians from Syrian government air strikes in the country’s brutal civil war.

The government has said the group staged videos.

Damascus’ ally Russia has accused the group of staging chemical weapons attacks on civilians and blaming them on the government, a charge that has never been proven.

On Saturday, more than 400 rescuers and their family members were evacuated from Syria’s Quneitra province through Israel to Jordan, after the rebels surrendered the last areas they held in the south-western province to the government.

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Syria’s foreign ministry called it a “smuggling operation” that was evidence of a Western conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The White Helmets have financial backing from the US, the UK, and other nations.

The unprecedented operation was spearheaded by the US, Canada, and UK.

The rescuers and their families are expected to be resettled in Europe and Canada.

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Germany’s interior minister confirmed the country would give asylum to eight rescuers and 39 family members.

Horst Seehofer said on Sunday that giving the rescue workers shelter “is a humanitarian obligation. More than 250 White Helmets have been killed in the war since 2013”.

Foreign minister Heiko Maas was quoted as saying that “the efforts of the White Helmets deserve admiration and respect”.

Germany has provided the group with 12 million euro (£10 million) in funding since 2016.

Meanwhile, Israel said it fired a pair of missiles to intercept two missiles fired from Syria in Israel’s direction.

It said the Syrian missiles landed inside Syrian territory just short of the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967.

The White Helmets have enjoyed backing from the United States and other Western nations for years. Credit: AP

Hundreds of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon, also on Monday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

It is the latest in a string of returns this year. President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party has put refugee returns near the top of its political agenda.

The National News Agency said 850 Syrians living around the border town of Arsal were repatriated on Monday.

Close to one million Syrians are registered with the UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon. The agency, the UNHCR, said it is not organising returns to Syria. It says refugees should not be coerced into returning.

More than five million people have fled the country during its seven-year-long civil war, according to the UN.