Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says the White Helmets are terrorists posing as volunteer rescue personnel, and will be killed if they don’t surrender and lay down their arms, Russian media outlets reported Thursday.
Hundreds of members of the group — feted in the West and credited with saving thousands of lives during the Syrian regime’s bombing campaigns — were evacuated out of Syria by the Israeli military last week, with around 50 of them expected to be resettled in Canada.
At the time, Syria’s foreign ministry dubbed the rescue a “criminal operation” intended to destabilize its government.
WATCH: White Helmets and their families rescued from Syria
But Assad upped the ante Thursday, telling Russian media that the White Helmets are terrorists masquerading as volunteers, and they face a simple choice — surrender or die.
“The fate of the White Helmets will be the same as for any other terrorists. They have two choices: to lay down their arms and use the amnesty we have offered over the last four or five years, or be killed like other terrorists,” Assad said according to Russia Today.
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Elaborating on his allegation that the White Helmets are terrorists, Assad said the group, officially called the Syrian Civil Defence, are a front for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Nusra.
“You have videos and photos of [White Helmets] holding swords and celebrating the deaths of Syrian soldiers. What more evidence do you need that they are not a humanitarian organization, but a mask used by Al-Qaeda?” he said.
Assad added that those White Helmets who fled Syria “really did not flee — they were evacuated by Israel, Jordan and the Western powers,” Sputnik News reported.
Both the Syrian government and its major ally Russia have repeatedly dismissed the White Helmets’ claim of neutrality, calling them a mixture of Islamist insurgents and Western propaganda tools.
On Thursday, a White Helmets spokesperson based in Turkey appealed to the United Nations to save his colleagues trapped in southwest Syria by advancing government forces.
“We want the U.N. or any international agency to remove the White Helmet volunteers from Deraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria” said Majd Khalaf, one of the founders of the White Helmets. “It is so hard when White Helmets have to leave people behind – and they also have to start their lives over,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Istanbul, Turkey.
— With files from Reuters
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