A week on from the evacuation of some 400 "White Helmet" rescue workers by Israeli and Western powers, hundreds still face being targeted by the Syrian regime. Calls are growing for the international community to act.
Hundreds of "White Helmet" rescue workers risk being systematically targeted as the Syrian regime, backed by Russian air support, continues its offensive towards the southwest of the country.
Several aid bodies, including the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, have called on the international community to once again help in evacuating the remaining rescue workers and their relatives from Syria.
"We ask to protect our volunteers and all the humanitarian workers, especially those who are still trapped in closed areas, and to give them a choice to go to places where they feel safer,” Raed Al Saleh, the chairman of the White Helmets, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defense, said in a statement.
Last week, Israel helped evacuate some 422 people over the Golan heights and into Jordan. It marked Israel's first direct intervention in the Syrian civil war. The evacuees are due to be settled within Britain, Germany and Canada.
However, around 400 people due to be evacuated last week were prevented from leaving the besieged region by the Syrian military and its militias. They remained trapped, desperately seeking a way out.
“We commend the diplomatic efforts that allowed for this operation to happen and we urge the governments to now implement their commitments and resettle the 98 men and women and their 324 family members promptly and safely”, Ole von Uexküll, director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation,” said.
Targeted by the Syrian regime
Following the regime's offensive in the southwest, the northwestern city of Idlib now remains the last major area held by Syrian rebel forces. As result, it has become the scene of increasingly frequent aerial bombardment by Syrian President Bashar Assad forces, propped up by the Russian military.
"Now Idlib is our goal, but not just Idlib," Assad said in comments carried by Russian media on Thursday. "There are of course territories in the eastern part of Syria that are controlled by various groups... So we will be moving into all these regions," he added.
The White Helmets, who since 2013 have operated only in opposition-held areas of Syria, warn that they face great risks should they be captured by government troops. Both Damascus and Moscow have accused the rescue operation of being affiliated with al-Qaeda and fabricating chemical weapons attacks.
"As Syrians who love our country, it breaks our hearts to be forced to leave it, but it was the only alternative for our trapped volunteers who would otherwise have faced detention or death at the hands of the Syrian regime and its ally Russia,” said Al Saleh.
Daman Ayed, a 20-year-old White Helmet rescue worker, told the Reuters news agency that Assad regime had seized paperwork at a White Helmets base during their advance towards Idlib this month.
"The most important thing is the names and identities of the volunteers, and our special identification cards. This is what damages us the most," Ayed said. "The papers and the names were not destroyed, but stayed as they were and are in the hands of the regime."