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Syria blasts evacuation of White Helmets as ‘criminal’

July 23, 2018

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 14, 2017, file photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows civil defense workers carrying children after airstrikes hit a school housing a number of displaced people, in the western part of the southern Daraa province of Syria. The Israeli military said Sunday it had rescued members of a Syrian volunteer civil organization, known as White Helmets, from the volatile frontier area and evacuated them to a third country, the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government on Monday condemned a multilateral operation to evacuate hundreds of rescue workers from the war-torn country as a “criminal process” intended to de-stabilize Syria.

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

The group rose to prominence as it filmed its operations to rescue civilians from Syrian government airstrikes in the country’s brutal civil war. The government has alleged the group stages videos. Damascus’s 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 southwestern province to the government.

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 U.S., Britain, and other nations.

The unprecedented operation was spearheaded by the U.S., Canada, and Britain, The Associated Press reported on Friday.

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

Germany’s Interior Ministry confirmed on Monday that the country would give asylum to eight rescuers and 39 family members.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Sunday giving the rescue workers shelter “is a humanitarian obligation,” adding that 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 euros ($14 million) in funding since 2016.

Meanwhile, Jordanian government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said her country has not been asked to receive another group of White Helmets.

Ghunaimat also said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Sunday discussed “preliminary ideas” about the possible return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, but that “we cannot talk about return while the crisis in Syria is not yet over.”

“Jordan is willing and encouraging the return when tension calms down because the refugees constitute a heavy burden on the kingdom in the light of the international community’s inability to cover the costs,” she said.

More than 5 million people have fled Syria during its seven-year-long civil war, according to the U.N.

Last week, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it proposed to the United States the creation of a joint group, along with Jordan, to organize refugee returns. The group would be linked to a U.S.-Russian-Jordanian center set up last year in Jordan for monitoring a cease-fire in southwest Syria, said Major-General Milkahil Mizintsev.

“Active progress in this direction is promoted by the agreements reached” last week by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Finland, he said Friday.

He added that “specific proposals have been sent to the American side for organizing work on the return of refugees to their places of permanent residence.”

A similar operation would be established in Lebanon, he said.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported Monday that hundreds of refugees return to Syria from Lebanon. 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 U.N.’s refugee agency in Lebanon. The agency, the UNHCR, says it is not organizing returns to Syria. It says refugees should not be coerced into returning.

Also Monday, 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.

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Associated Press writers Fares Akram in Amman, Jordan, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed reporting.

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