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)

Syria blasts evacuation of White Helmets as 'criminal'

July 23, 2018 - 11:29 am

DAMASCUS, Syria (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 said 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 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. 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.

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.

Hundreds of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon, also on Monday, Lebanon's National News Agency reported.

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.

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