Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul

Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul
By Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The British founder of an organization that trained the “White Helmets” emergency response group has been found dead in Istanbul, five years after the group was set up to perform rescue work in rebel areas during the Syrian civil war.

The body of James Le Mesurier, founder of the Mayday Rescue group, was found early on Monday near his home in central Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, a neighbor said. The Istanbul Governor’s Office said an investigation had been launched.

A security source told Reuters it was believed that Le Mesurier had fallen from the balcony of his home office and his death was being treated as suspected suicide.

The White Helmets, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas hit by bombing by government and Russian forces in Syria’s more than eight-year-old civil war.

White Helmets members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Moscow, describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Twitter on Friday that the White Helmets help “the most dangerous terrorist groups” and that Le Mesurier was a former British agent with reported “connections to terrorist groups”.

Ambassador Karen Pierce, UK Permanent Representative to the UN, described Le Mesurier as a “true hero” when she was asked about his death by reporters.

“The causes of death at the moment are unclear. We will be looking very closely to see how the investigation goes. I hope the Turkish authorities will be able to investigate thoroughly,” she said.

“The Russian charges against him, that came out of the foreign ministry that he was a spy, (are) categorically untrue. He was a British soldier,” she added.

Mayday Rescue, a not-for-profit organization, began its operations in 2014 and established an office in Istanbul in 2015 to support its Syria project. Its projects have been funded by the United Nations and various governments, its website said.

A former British army officer, Le Mesurier was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2016 for services to Syria Civil Defence and the protection of civilians in Syria.

The security source said Le Mesurier’s wife told police that she and her husband had taken sleeping pills around 4 a.m. and went to bed. She said she was later woken by knocking on the door and discovered that her husband was lying on the street surrounded by police, the source added.

A diplomat told Reuters the circumstances around the death were unclear.

Mayday Rescue did not immediately respond to an emailed query.

Syria Civil Defence on Twitter expressed “our deepest sorrow and solidarity” with Le Mesurier’s family. “We also must commend his humanitarian efforts which Syrians will always remember,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Jordan says nearly 300 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ leave for West

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday.

In July the rescue workers who had been operating in rebel-held areas fled advancing Russian-backed Syrian government troops and slipped over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders and that there had been fears that the rescue workers’ lives were at risk.

Jordan had accepted them on humanitarian grounds after getting written guarantees they would be given asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain, Jordanian officials said.

The “White Helmets”, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s civil war.

Its members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25, near the end of a three-month period the authorities had given them to stay.

Another group’s departure would be delayed for two weeks until mid-November as there were new-born babies and people receiving medical treatment among them, al-Qatarneh told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)

Warplanes drop incendiary bombs in Syria’s Idlib, Hama

People inspect the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian or Russian warplanes dropped incendiary bombs on areas of Idlib and Hama provinces just days after a deadly gas attack in the region, activists and a monitoring group reported on Monday.

Moscow and the Syrian army were not immediately available for comment.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian jets had used an incendiary substance called thermite in bombs they dropped over the towns of Saraqeb in Idlib and al-Latamenah in Hama, further south, on Saturday and Sunday.

A rescue worker in Saraqeb said warplanes had dropped phosphorus bombs there, but he had not heard of the use of thermite. He said use of phosphorus was not a new development.

“It’s normal, these are often used,” said Laith Abdullah of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a rescue group working in rebel-held areas.

Videos posted on social media purportedly from Saraqeb on Sunday showed flaming materials hitting the ground and spreading large fires.

The Observatory said thermite had first been used in the Syrian conflict in June 2016 by the Syrian government.

The bombings came after the United States launched cruise missiles at an air base in western Syria on Friday. The missile strike was a response to what Washington said was a gas attack by Syrian warplanes in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib that killed scores.

Syria denies using chemical substances and denies it carried out the attack.

The Observatory reported Syrian warplanes took off from the same air base less than a day after the U.S. attack and carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Larry King)

Rebel Aleppo’s final agony

FILE PHOTO - Rebel fighters and civilians gather as they wait to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Ellen Francis

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) – As the bombardment of Aleppo intensified in the days before the collapse of the city’s rebel enclave, Mahmoud Issa would try to comfort his terrified children.

“My small daughter would sleep with her hands over her ears … I would tell her ‘don’t be afraid, I am next to you.'”

Issa told Reuters there was another motive too. “What being close means of course is that we die together, so no one who stays alive would be sad about the others.”

Thousands of people trapped in eastern Aleppo faced cold, hunger, destitution and an uncertain wait to leave their city as refugees while government forces seized the last rebel pocket, a major prize in the Syrian war.

As reports spread of killings by government soldiers and allied militiamen, denied by Damascus, many were hit by the painful reality that they may never return home.

The battle for Aleppo had begun in 2012, a year after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, but it was only this summer that the army and allied Shi’ite militias backed by Russian air power besieged the rebels’ eastern zone.

On Nov. 24, the attackers made a sudden advance prompting retreats by the rebels that ended with their acceptance of a ceasefire and agreement to withdraw last Tuesday.

Despite the evacuation of around 10,000 people, many more remained stuck after the agreement broke down, hostage to complex negotiations between armed groups on each side.

Images from within the last rebel-held area in recent days showed crowds of people huddling around fires, clothes pulled tight against the bitter weather, seeking shelter among piles of rubble and twisted metal.

“NOBODY TO BURY THEM”

“All the residents were crammed in three or four districts. People were in the streets, so any mortar shell that fell caused a massacre. The dead needed somebody to bury them. There was nobody to bury them,” a man in his 40s who was evacuated from the city told Reuters.

Like others interviewed for this article, the man asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

On Wednesday, the area was pummelled by air strikes and artillery fire, a bombardment that reached a climax before midnight.

“The shells were falling around us at the rate of my breathing,” said Modar Shekho, a nurse whose father and brother were both killed by bombs in the last two weeks. He escaped Aleppo last week in a convoy to rejoin his family in the rebel-held countryside outside the city.

The White Helmets civil defense rescue group, which operates in Syria’s rebel-held areas, had suspended organized service after volunteers were scattered in the retreat and much of its equipment was lost or rendered useless by fuel shortages.

“We are working with our hands just to get people from under the rubble,” said Ibrahim Abu Laith, a civil defense official.

Bodies were lying in the streets, residents said.

Photographs sent by a medic showed a man in a field clinic picking his way between people lying on the floor under blankets in a corridor with blood smeared on the wall.

FAMILIES SEPARATED IN CHAOS

Most people had only a bag or two of possessions with them.

“Everyone in Aleppo has moved nearly ten times. There was no longer any place. Every time I move to a house it gets shelled,” said Adnan Abed al-Raouf, a former civil servant.

In the chaos, families were split up.

Wadah Qadour, a former construction foreman, described how a man carried his bleeding wife looking for help had failed to realize their daughter was not following behind — one of the families separated in the chaos.

“The girl was put in an orphanage,” said Qadour.

One Reuters photograph showed a mother cradling her child in a blanket as they sat by the side of a road beside rubble.

“It got dark outside. People squatted in the streets, and they started making fires to keep warm. Most people hid from the cold in open shops,” said Shekho, the nurse whose father and brother had died. “Thousands of families slept in the streets waiting for the buses to come back.”

Crowds attempted to reach buses on Thursday, when at least three convoys managed to leave Aleppo for the rebel-held areas in countryside to the west.

When vehicles arrived at midnight, everybody rushed for a place. “Each of us picked up his stuff and we went right away,” said Shekho. “Thousands of families were crowding into the buses.”

He managed to leave Aleppo. Still, thousands of people remain stranded, with estimates as high as tens of thousands.

“They were still waiting in the streets and it got really cold and the buses were late,” said another nurse in Aleppo.

REPORTS OF KILLINGS

Growing panic centered around unconfirmed reports of summary killings and other accusations of abuses by the army and its allies in captured areas.

Five people told Reuters about the same incident involving young men from their neighborhood in al-Kalasa who had fled into the basement of a clinic. They were not heard of again and their former neighbors were convinced they had been killed in the government advance.

Six other people from the Bustan al-Qasr quarter said they had been told by people who remain that the bodies of nine members of a family called Ajami had been found in a house.

Damascus and its allies – which include the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and the Iraqi militia Harakat al-Nujaba – have denied that any mass arrests or summary killings took place.

An elderly man told Reuters his identity card had been confiscated at a government check point and he was told to go to a school to collect it.

Once there, he and some younger men were put into a room. Soldiers told them they would be killed but at the last minute took him and some others out. Then they heard shooting from inside the room, he said.

Reuters was not able to verify the reports independently.

HARD CHOICES

For rebels trying to decide what to do in the face of defeat, fear for families and other civilians weighed heavily.

After vowing never to leave, rebels acknowledged they had no alternative as bombardments pounded residential areas.

They accepted the terms of a withdrawal set out in a U.S.-Russian proposal that offered them safe passage out of the city, after it was presented to them by U.S. officials, rebel officials said. But no sooner had they embraced the idea of surrendering, than Russia declared there was no deal.

Rebel commanders decided their only option was to fight to the death, said the commander of the Jabha Shamiya rebel group.

“They were very hard days, because we were responsible for civilians – women, children, the elderly,” said Abu Ali Saqour, speaking from eastern Aleppo.

Later that night, the army and its allies made another lightning advance, taking the Sheikh Saeed district after intense fighting and pushing the rebels back during the next day to a last tiny pocket.

New talks between Russia and Turkey, the main foreign supporter of the rebels, led to a new evacuation deal, but implementation would be halting at best, leaving thousands of people in limbo in freezing temperatures.

Yousef al Ragheb, a fighter from the Fastaqim rebel group, was ordered by his commanders to shred stacks of documents and dump equipment from a headquarters.

After hearing that the ceasefire was holding, Abdullah Istanbuli, a protester-turned-fighter, spent hours burning his belongings and smashing his furniture to prevent it being looted after he left. “We are burning our memories … No I don’t want any one to live in my house after me,” he said.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Ellen Francis in Beirut. Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut. Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Michael Georgy and Peter Millership)

Aleppo air strike kills 14 members of one family

A damaged site is pictured after an airstrike in the besieged rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fourteen members of the same family were killed in an air strike in rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Monday, emergency service workers said, as the Syrian government pursued its Russian-backed campaign to capture opposition-held areas of the city.

A list of the dead published by the Civil Defence included several infants, among them two six-week old babies and six other children aged eight or below. The Civil Defence identified the jets as Russian. The attack hit the city’s al-Marjeh area.

The Civil Defence is a rescue service operating in rebel-held areas of Syria. Its workers are known as “White Helmets”.

The campaign has killed several hundred people since it started last month after the collapse of a truce brokered by Russia and the United States. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 448 people in air strikes in eastern Aleppo since then, including 82 children.

Syrian and Russian militaries say they only target militants.

People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria

People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

 

Since the campaign was announced on Sept. 22, the government has captured territory from rebels to the north of the city, and also reported advances in the city itself which rebels have in turn said they have mostly repelled.

A Syrian military source said the army had targeted terrorists in three areas of Aleppo on Monday, killing seven of them. The government refers to all rebel fighters as terrorists.

The Observatory said 17 more people were killed in attacks by Russian jets on Sunday night in the al-Qarterji district of rebel-held Aleppo. That included five children, it said.

The monitoring group also said it had recorded the deaths of 82 people including 17 children in government-held areas of western Aleppo as a result of rebel shelling.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Louise Ireland)