7 members of heroic Syrian White Helmet relief organization killed
In what can only be described as a horrifying incident, seven members of the Syrian White Helmets rescue group were shot dead by unknown gunmen in Sarmeen, a town in rebel-held Idlib province. The volunteer White Helmets group has earned international acclaim for saving thousands after braving airstrikes, gunfire and bombs during the six-year Syrian Civil War. The murders have attracted international condemnation.
The White Helmets started as a volunteer rescue force in 2013 and are now 3,000 members strong. They claim neutrality and have no political affiliation, adding that their task is to save people regardless of which side they belong to. Around 130 White Helmet members have been killed in the conflict. In 2016, they narrowly missed out on winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
The seven volunteers were murdered in their operations centre at Sarmin on August 12. They were executed by being shot in the head, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The murderers stole two of their mini-buses and their distinctive white helmets. Several White Helmet volunteers have fallen victims to airstrikes but this is the first time they have been executed like this.
"The heart is saddened, there are tears in our eyes for you departure," said White Helmets founder Raed al-Saleh. "May God strengthen us and make us patient for facing this tragedy."
Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda linked Islamist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). However, activists in Idlib have expressed surprise at the murders saying the HTS has never targeted the White Helmets before, so it's unlikely they are responsible. The HTS has described the killings as an "ugly crime." One theory suggests that the Assad regime killed the men to create infighting among rebels.
The US State Department said it was "saddened and horrified" by the murders and condemned it as a "cowardly" act. The killings were also condemned by the French foreign ministry UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it was "devastated" by it.