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US,Allies to Evacuate Syria Aid Workers07/20 06:19

   More than a month after North Korea pledged to immediately return some 
American war dead, the promise is unfulfilled.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. officials say the United States is finalizing plans 
to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families 
from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces close in on the area.

   Two officials familiar with the plans said Thursday that the U.S., Britain 
and Canada are spearheading the evacuation that would transport members of the 
White Helmets group to transit camps in neighboring countries. From there, they 
will be sent to third countries, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands 
and possibly Canada, according to the officials who spoke on condition of 
anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

   The officials, and a member of the White Helmets who is due to be evacuated 
from Quneitra province, said the operation appears to be imminent as the Syrian 
army continues to gain ground in its latest offensive. The White Helmets, who 
have enjoyed backing from the U.S. and other Western nations for years, are 
likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retake control of the southwest, 
according to the officials.

   The officials said planning for the evacuation has been underway for some 
time but accelerated after last week's NATO summit in Brussels.

   "These are hard hours and minutes," the White Helmets volunteer in Quneitra 
said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his life. "This is the 
worst day of my life. I hope they rescue us before it is too late."

   The evacuation is expected to take place from Quneitra, which straddles the 
frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and where the civil defense 
team is trapped. It is the last sliver of land still outside government control 
in the region.

   Since the government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier 
with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, 
attracting hundreds of displaced people because is along the disengagement line 
with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war. The Syrian government is unlikely 
to fire there or carry out airstrikes.

   Negotiations are also ongoing to evacuate armed rebels and their families 
who don't want to accept the return of the rule of Bashar Assad's government to 
Quneitra, which the rebels have controlled for years. The fighters will be 
evacuated to the northern part of Syria, where the opposition still holds sway.

   Except for that sliver of land, the southern tip of the southwestern region 
lies along the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights and is occupied by an 
Islamic State-affiliated group. The area is expected to be the target of the 
next government advances and the civil defense teams don't operate there.

   The White Helmets are not without controversy. They only operate in 
opposition-held areas, where government services are almost non-existent and 
aerial bombings are recurrent. Syrian government supporters accuse them of 
being politically affiliated with the rebel groups. Russia and the Syrian 
government have repeatedly accused them of staging chemical attacks in 
opposition areas, a charge that has never been proven.

   They have continued to receive U.S. support even as President Donald Trump 
presses ahead with his plans to withdraw all American forces from Syria as soon 
as Islamic State forces are routed.

   In June, the State Department freed up a small portion --- $6.6 million out 
of some $200 million --- in frozen funding for Syria stabilization programs to 
keep the White Helmets operating through the end of this year.

   In other parts of Syria, where government control has been restored, civil 
defense volunteers have almost always evacuated to other opposition-controlled 
areas. It is not clear why this time they will be evacuated out of the country.


(KA)

 
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