JERUSALEM/AMMA • Hundreds of members of Syria's "White Helmet" civil defence group have fled advancing government forces and been spirited over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers, officials said yesterday.
Israel's army said on Twitter that Washington and European governments had asked it to move the White Helmets and their families out of south-west Syria overnight as there was "an immediate threat to their lives".
The evacuees - who operated in rebel-held areas in Syria and ran an emergency rescue service during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies - will be resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months, a Jordanian government source said.
The source said 422 people were brought from Syria, over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, down from a figure of 800 announced earlier by the Foreign Ministry in Amman.
A second, non-Jordanian source familiar with the agreement said the original plan had been to evacuate 800 people, but only 422 made it out as operations were hampered by government checkpoints and the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the area.
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence group, who say they are politically neutral, have been credited with saving thousands of lives, and were widely discussed as potential recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. A documentary about them won an Academy Award last year.
Britain hailed the evacuation, saying that it and other allies had requested it.
"Fantastic news that we - UK and friends - have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families - thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request," tweeted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The group was evacuated as fighting intensifies along the border region.
On June 19, forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad launched a Russia-backed offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces. Just a month later, regime forces have regained control of most of these two provinces through a combination of deadly bombardment and Moscow-brokered surrender deals.
These deals provide for rebels to hand over their heavy weapons and for those who disagree with a regime takeover to be bussed with family members to opposition-held areas in the north of the country.
Hundreds of rebel fighters and their families arrived last Saturday in north-western Syria after their evacuation from the south under a deal with the regime, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.
Militants are not party to these deals, and Russian and Syrian forces have been attacking the ISIS group. An intelligence source told Reuters that 1,000 to 1,500 ISIS fighters had been holding their ground despite the 10-day-old bombing campaign which he said had hit villages and caused an "untold number" of civilian casualties.