Syrian White Helmets ex-leader clear of jihadist link, moves to Germany


An ex-leader of the Syrian civil defence and medical group that operates in opposition-held areas, known as the White Helmets, has been flown to Germany, despite earlier suspicions of jihadist links.

German weekly Der Spiegel reported that Khalid al-Saleh and his family were flown into the country on Monday. They had previously been living in a Jordanian camp after being evacuated from Syria.

Saleh was among 422 White Helmets and family members who fled southern Syria during a government offensive in 2018.

Jordan agreed to accommodate them temporarily. They were evacuated in a clandestine operation via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, at the request of the UK, Germany, Canada and the US.

Spiegel reports that since that evacuation the German interior ministry had refused to let Mr. Saleh move to Germany, suspecting him of sympathising with jihadists, but his arrival on Monday followed pressure from the German foreign ministry.

There was also reportedly pressure from the Jordanian authorities, who had agreed to let the Syrians stay for three months on condition that they be moved to Germany, the UK or Canada. Those nations had agreed to take them in, Jordan said.

Mr. Saleh denied any links to jihadists, Spiegel reported. Germany earlier refused to let him in after sending security officials to question him in a Jordanian camp, where they also checked his mobile phone contents.

The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones. Their official name is the Syrian Civil Defence – they began in early 2013, rescuing victims of government shelling and air raids.

The White Helmets operate only in rebel-held areas where no state emergency services operate. They say all their members have signed up to a non-partisan code of conduct.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers Russia and Iran say the White Helmets support the rebels and have links to jihadist groups.

The White Helmets say they are victims of a campaign to discredit them because they gather evidence of what they describe as deliberate targeting of civilians by Syrian and Russian forces.

In September 2018 the UK government said the White Helmets group “has saved over 115,000 lives and protected the Syrian people who are bearing the brunt of the conflict”.

The UK has also resettled some of the White Helmets and their families who fled the war.

The countries that provided support for the White Helmets believed their lives were at risk at the time of the evacuation.

In October 2018 Jordan’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 evacuated from Syria had left, Reuters news agency reported. (Source: BBC)