Israel confirms evacuation of White Helmets members from Syria at USA request

USA officials had said they were finalising plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defence workers and their families from south-west Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on the Quneitra province.

Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through south-western Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

A spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces said the operation was an "exceptional humanitarian gesture".

How did the operation come about?

Israeli forces carried out the rescue on Saturday night following a request from the "US, Canada, and European Union countries".

Islamic State-affiliated forces entrenched in the Yarmouk Basin, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan, also repelled a ground attack by the Syrian army and its allies, the sources added.

The offensive, which began in June, has seen a number of agreements that have led to the evacuation of rebel forces from the Deraa and Quneitra areas to regions further north.

Syrian state media cited "reports" that a deal for Quneitra province in the southwest had been reached.

"They were trapped in a risky area and arrived in Jordan now", the volunteer group said.

The Israeli military carried out the overnight rescue, reportedly bringing the first responders over the Golan Heights and into Jordan.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the evacuations "fantastic news", and the Trump administration said it "deeply appreciates" Israel's role and Jordan's "generosity".

But a similar number remain trapped in southern Syria.

"They discussed the regional security situation and the evacuation of White Helmets from Syria".

Also Monday, Israel said it fired a pair of missiles to intercept two missiles fired from Syria in Israel's direction. "Israel continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict and continues to hold the Syrian regime accountable for all activities in Syrian territory".

Jordan's government confirmed it had "authorised the United Nations to organise the passage of 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan to be resettled in Western countries".

A Jordanian government source said the evacuees would be kept in a "closed" location in Jordan and resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months.

"We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as numerous volunteers and their families as possible".

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families.

"White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection", it said.

Critics of the move have raised doubts around the White Helmets' legitimacy as a human rights organisation, accusing them of containing within their ranks jihadists who are now set to be welcomed to Britain.

  • Jon Douglas