‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

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Members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, bury their fellow comrades during a funeral in Sarmin, a jihadist-held town nine kilometres east of Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on August 12, 2017. (AFP)
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A wounded Syrian is carried by a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the white helmets, to a hospital in the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in this November 16, 2017 file photo. (AFP)
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In this file photo taken on April 8, 2017, members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 27 July 2018
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‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

  • More than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war
  • Syria war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million

BEIRUT: A senior member of the Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers called on Thursday for the United Nations to save his colleagues trapped in the southwest by advancing government forces.
Israel and Western powers helped evacuate 422 White Helmets and their families from Syria into Jordan last week but others were unable to make it out because of government checkpoints and the expansion of Daesh in the area.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by the Russian military, have captured most of the southern province of Daraa in an offensive that began in June.
“We want the UN or any international agency to remove the White Helmet volunteers from Daraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria” said Majd Khalaf, one of the founders of the White Helmets. “It is so hard when White Helmets have to leave people behind — and they also have to start their lives over,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Istanbul, Turkey.
He declined to say how many White Helmets were still at risk in the area, but said that the group has more than 3,700 women and men in Syria and that more than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war.
The group, known officially as Syria Civil Defense, has been widely hailed in the West and credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies.
Its volunteers, famed for their white helmets, say they are neutral. But Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers, including Russia, have dismissed them as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of insurgents.
The Syrian government on Monday condemned last week’s evacuation as a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools.”
Government forces backed by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria in the last month, in one of the swiftest campaigns of a war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million.
“After the control of the regime on all borders and the whole area, we are trapped and cannot move,” one White Helmet in Daraa, who declined to give his name, said via WhatsApp, adding that he fears being arrested.
Raed Al Saleh, director of the White Helmets, said his volunteers were “helpless” as they are a civilian organization.
“Unfortunately we wish we could stay in these areas, but it is not in our hands,” he said by phone from Turkey. “We are asking for their evacuation to protect them.”


US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

Updated 43 min 16 sec ago
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US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

  • President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria on Saturday
  • Groups said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday

BAGHOUZ, Syria: A US-backed force in Syria is closing in on Daesh militants in a tiny area less than a square kilometer (square mile) in eastern Syria, and will soon declare the defeat of the militant group, a commander with the group said Saturday.
The capture of the last pocket still held by Daesh fighters in the village of Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, speaking at a news conference at the Al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir Ezzor province.
President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against Daesh by the end of Saturday.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz Saturday, hundreds of meters away from the last speck of land where Daesh militants were holed up, saw several aircraft overhead and two airstrikes hit the area. SDF fighters said were fired by the US-led coalition.
The Syrian Democratic Forces declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated.
Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds more civilians in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.
Furat, the SDF commander, said Daesh fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 700 square meters (840 square yards). He said that SDF fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues that were held by Daesh.
Furat’s comments were carried by Kurdish news agencies, including Hawar News.
“We are dealing with this small pocket with patience and caution. It is militarily fallen but civilians are used as human shields,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press. Bali added that the SDF believes that Daesh gunmen are also holding previously kidnapped Syrians in the area.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are almost in full control of the area once controlled by extremists, adding that there might still be Daesh fighters hiding in a network of underground tunnels.
The Observatory said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday, days after about 240 others surrendered and were taken by SDF fighters and members of the US-led coalition.
“The defeat of Daesh will come within days,” Furat said. He added that after the physical defeat of Daesh, the SDF “will continue in its fight against Daesh sleepers cells.”
Despite the expected defeat on the ground, activists and residents say Daesh still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The group has claimed responsibility in recent months for deadly attacks, mostly in Iraq, more than a year after the Iraqi government said the extremists have been defeated after losing the northern city of Mosul in 2017, the largest they held.