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Israel Evacuates Syrian Volunteers     07/22 10:45

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Israeli military evacuated hundreds of Syrian rescue 
workers known as White Helmets from the volatile frontier area on the Golan 
Heights and transported them to Jordan, following a request by the United 
States and its European allies, officials said Sunday.

   It was the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war, now 
in its eight year.

   Jordan confirmed the Syrian citizens entered its territory to be resettled 
in Western countries in weeks. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the total 
number of evacuees was 422, even though the initial request was to evacuate 
800. It was unclear what happened to the remainder.

   Safadi later tweeted that Jordan approved the evacuations after a pledge 
from Britain, Germany and Canada that the Syrian evacuees would be resettled in 
three months.

   The White Helmets and their families had been stranded along the frontier 
with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights following the Syrian government 
offensive in southwestern Syria which began in June.

   The group, which operates in opposition-held areas, is often targeted in 
Syrian government attacks on its members and facilities. The Syrian government 
considers the group a "terrorist" organization because it works in areas 
controlled by its opponents, where state institutions and services are 
non-existent.

   The Israeli military said the overnight operation was an "exceptional 
humanitarian gesture" done at the request of the United States and its European 
allies due to "an immediate threat to the (Syrians') lives."

   The military said its actions did not reflect a change to Israel's 
non-intervention policy in Syria's war, where all the warring parties are 
considered hostile.

   The British International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Foreign 
Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Syrian  volunteers and their family "have been 
able to leave Syria for safety" following a joint diplomatic effort by Britain 
and its international partners.

   "The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, 
at great risk to their own," the two officials said in a statement Sunday. "We 
judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required 
immediate protection. "

   The evacuees are being assisted by the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, 
pending international resettlement, they said.

   Jordanian Foreign Ministry's spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said the Syrians 
would remain in a closed area in Jordan for three months before moving on to 
Britain, Germany and Canada.

   Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense as the White Helmets are also 
known, said a number of volunteers and their families were evacuated from a 
dangerous, besieged area and had reached Jordan. He did not elaborate on the 
numbers of those evacuated.

   The Syrian government and Russia view the White Helmets as "agents" of 
foreign powers and have regularly accused them of staging rescue missions or 
chemical attacks. Syrian state TV Al-Ikhbariya reported the Israeli evacuation 
of the White Helmets, calling it a "scandal" and saying "terrorist groups" now 
have "zero options."

   The Associated Press first reported on Friday that U.S. officials were 
finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and 
their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed 
in on the Quneitra province, along the Golan Heights frontier.

   The officials said the White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the 
United States and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted 
by Syrian forces as they retook control of the southwest. Evacuation plans were 
accelerated after last week's NATO summit in Brussels.

   Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the 
frontier in the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, 
attracting hundreds of displaced because of its location along the 
disengagement line with Israel, demarcated in 1974 after a war. Israel has 
occupied the Golan Heights since 1967. Thousands of civilians had taken shelter 
near the frontier to escape the government offensive.

   The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes for 
fear of an Israeli response.

   Meanwhile, Syrian forces kept up their offensive, pounding the southern tip 
of the southwestern region where an Islamic State-affiliated group still holds 
territory.

   The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bombing --- 130 airstrikes 
since Saturday --- displaced 20,000 civilians while an estimated 10,000 remain 
trapped in the area controlled by the militants, with their fate unknown.

   Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power 
have swept through southwestern 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.

   With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the 
civil war began in 2011, retaking this territory from the rebels and restoring 
their positions along the disengagement line in the Golan Heights.

   Since the offensive began, Jordan said it will not open its borders to the 
newly displaced Syrians. Jordan hosts at least 650,000 registered Syrian 
refugees, according to the U.N., but Amman says a similar number of 
undocumented Syrians are also in the kingdom.

   During the latest Syrian government offensive, which began on June 19, 
around 300,000 Syrians have been displaced, heading toward the sealed Israeli 
and Jordanian borders in what the U.N. said was the largest single displacement 
since the Syrian civil war started in 2011.

   Some Syrians have opted to be evacuated to northern Idlib province, where 
the opposition still holds territory. Thousands of armed men and their families 
were evacuated over the weekend. The Observatory said two buses carrying 
evacuees were held up by a pro-Syrian government militia, apparently after they 
went off road.

   Panicked passengers, fearing for their lives, posted pictures of the militia 
surrounding their buses on social media.

   Israel has been sending aid into Syria for several years and has provided 
medical treatment to thousands of Syrians who reached the Golan Heights 
frontier. In the past two years, the Israeli military says it has delivered 
more than 1,500 tons of food, 250 tons of clothing and nearly a million liters 
of fuel.

   The Israeli military said it will continue to aid those in need but won't 
allow a massive influx of refugees into the country.


(KA)

 
 
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