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Israel evacuates stranded Syrian volunteers in 'international effort'

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Israel evacuates stranded Syrian volunteers in 'international effort'

Israel evacuates stranded Syrian volunteers in 'international effort'
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LONDON — The Israeli military evacuated 800 members of Syria's White Helmets civil defense group and their families from southwestern Syria, as Russian-backed government forces close in on the area and continue to gain ground across the country.

The evacuation was part of an international plan to help rescue the group's volunteers agreed upon at the NATO leaders' summit in Brussels last week, Chrystia Freeland Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs said in a statement released on Saturday.

Volunteers and their families were evacuated to neighboring Jordan after they were "besieged in a dangerous area," Raed Al Saleh, Director of the White Helmets posted on Twitter Sunday.

"They are now being assisted by the UNHCR in Jordan pending international resettlement," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement on Sunday, referring the United Nations' refugee agency.

The volunteers are expected to be held there before being relocated to the U.K., Germany and Canada, according to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed.

"The request was approved based on pure humanitarian reasons," he added.

The Israeli military said it acted on a government directive to evacuate the civilians at the request of the United States and "additional" European countries. "The transfer of the displaced Syrians through Israel is an exceptional humanitarian gesture," it said in a statement released late Saturday.

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

The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, is a humanitarian organization made up of nearly 3,000 volunteers who work to save lives and rescue victims from the rubble of the country's civil war.

They have enjoyed backing from the U.S. and other Western nations for years, and are likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retake control of the southwest, according to officials familiar with the plan who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"Canada, working in close partnership with the United Kingdom and Germany, has been leading an international effort to ensure the safety of White Helmets and their families," said Freeland.

The evacuation took place from an area of Syria along the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where the volunteers were trapped. It is the last sliver of land outside government control in the region.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia, continues to gain ground across the country. Last week it raised its flag over the city of Daraa, where the first protests against President Bashar Assad broke out in 2011, plunging the country into a devastating civil war.

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The White Helmets have continued to receive U.S. support despite President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw all American forces from Syria as soon as Islamic State forces are defeated.

In June, the State Department freed up a small portion in frozen funding for Syria stabilization programs to keep the White Helmets operating through the end of this year.

But the White Helmets are not without controversy. They only operate in opposition-held areas, where government services are almost non-existent and aerial bombings are recurrent. Syrian government supporters accuse them of being politically affiliated with the rebel groups.

In other parts of Syria, where government control has been restored, civil defense volunteers have been evacuated to other opposition-controlled areas. It is unclear why this time they were evacuated to a neighboring country.