'Rescuing The Rescuers': Stranded Syrian White Helmets Evacuated By Israel In a "Hail Mary" operation, the Israeli military evacuated hundreds of Syrian rescue volunteer workers to Jordan amid the Syrian regime's offensive against rebel-held parts of the country.
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'Rescuing The Rescuers': Stranded Syrian White Helmets Evacuated By Israel

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'Rescuing The Rescuers': Stranded Syrian White Helmets Evacuated By Israel

'Rescuing The Rescuers': Stranded Syrian White Helmets Evacuated By Israel

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NOEL KING, HOST:

We have some news this morning from Syria. A group called the White Helmets has spent years rescuing civilians during Syria's civil war. They operate with the backing of the United States. But recently, the White Helmets got trapped as they tried to escape an offensive by the Syrian regime. They were stranded along the border of the Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel, but they have been rescued. The Israeli military said it acted on a request from the U.S. and other countries to help evacuate them. The White Helmets and their families are now safely in Jordan, and we've heard they will be resettled in Canada, Germany and Britain. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this story. She's just outside of Beirut this morning. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: So this is a very dramatic story. What are the details of the rescue?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's an intensive government offensive going on in this area. And as the rebels there surrender, the countries that support the White Helmets decided to try to get them out. I reached one source close to the evacuation in the hours just after the rescue. He asks not to be named because he doesn't have permission to speak publicly. The line is a little unclear, but I ask him, how does he feel about it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Both tragic that it had to happen at all and incredible joy that it took place. It was a night of rescuing the rescuers. It's payback for what they've all done for so many others for so long.

KING: Wow.

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So he tells me they put out a call to tell the rescuers, look, if you can get to this evacuation point, come. He says it was a Hail Mary operation. This is a war zone, and some people's journeys were very dangerous. You had someone broke their leg on the way. There was a pregnant woman who gave birth just as she were being evacuated. And they were moving around regime and ISIS front lines. About 800 rescuers and their families were meant to leave. But in the end, he says, about 422 people made it out.

KING: Ruth, the White Helmets are rescue workers. They are not combatants. And so why do they need to flee an area when it's taken back by the Syrian regime?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Syrian government and its allies see the White Helmets as foreign agents of the West. They've accused them of staging chemical attacks and blaming those attacks on the Syrian government. The United Kingdom, which supports the White Helmets, put out a statement saying they supported the evacuation because these people had become targets for attack. And in the past, White Helmets members have been captured, imprisoned and tortured by the regime. They are seen as this kind of enemy No. 1. And as the regime takes back Syria, it struck a deal with - sorry. As the regime takes back this part of southern Syria, it struck a deal with other rebel fighters, saying they could have passage to another rebel-held province in the north, but I'm told that deal didn't extend to the White Helmets.

KING: Where does this all stand now? Is the Syrian regime back in control of most of the country?

SHERLOCK: It's made huge gains, and it controls most of the central parts of the country. But there are still large parts of the north that are under rebel and other control. And so, you know, that's where the majority of White Helmets rescuers actually are. They are said to still be about 3,000 rescue workers operating in these rebel pockets. And, you know, the fate of both this area, what will happen to this, whether it will go back to the hands of the regime and of these people, still very much remains to be seen.

KING: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut, Lebanon. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

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