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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

White Helmets vow to keep saving lives in face of funding freeze

Cuts are not linked to smear campaign against group, observer says

This photo released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a member of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a boy who was wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March. 11, 2018. President Donald Trump has announced a freezing of US funding for the group. Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
This photo released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a member of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a boy who was wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March. 11, 2018. President Donald Trump has announced a freezing of US funding for the group. Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP

Syrian civil defence group the White Helmets has vowed to keep saving lives after the US announced it was freezing funding for the group.

President Donald Trump announced last week that the US was freezing $200 million in aid destined for Syria, some of which was earmarked for the first responders group. The freeze will be welcomed by pro-Syrian government actors who have waged a misinformation campaign against the White Helmets, labelling it a terrorist organisation.

The funding freeze won't take effect until the end of August and meanwhile the group remains active. "All of our projects are still going on and we are still saving lives," White Helmets head Raed Al Saleh told The National. "We will keep doing it for as long as is possible.”

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Since their founding in 2014, the White Helmets has grown to more than 3000 volunteers. The group estimates they have pulled more than 110,000 people from rubble following Russian and Syrian government airstrikes.

The group regularly posts dramatic footage of its rescues, which some observers say documents evidence of war crimes against the Syrian people.

Beyond saving lives, the group aims to give hope to the Syrian people, Mr Saleh said. “Meanwhile they [the Syrian government] work to kill that hope, to kill the people, so they want to make us as a military target.”

Mr Al Saleh hit back at the disinformation campaign against the White Helmets, saying that no amount of "fake news" could alter the truth of the group's work. “It [misinformation] is like bugs, it is bothering, but it will never stop or change anything, the facts can't be changed.”

Widely-debunked conspiracy theories propagated by pro-Syrian government social media accounts allege that the White Helmets fake their rescue videos and that the group is linked to Al Qaeda.

"It is clear what our work is," Mr Al Saleh said. "Those people creating the misinformation are hopeless."

The Syrian government has often imprisoned people affiliated with the group. But Mr Al Salah said the group had no agenda beyond saving lives and would willingly work anywhere, including in government areas if allowed.

“We in the White Helmets don't have any political goals," he said, adding that they also don't have political affiliations with the groups which control the areas in which the White Helmets operate. "We want to work more widely to save more lives.”

One Syria expert said the White Helmets are one of the few "rays of sunlight" in the long-running civil war. "It’s despicable that they are targeted so badly [by misinformation],” former British Army officer Hamish de Bretton Gordon said.

While Russian and Syrian propagandists were likely to spin the funding freeze as a vindication of their view on the White Helmets, Mr de Bretton Gordon said the freeze came amid a general funding gap. “The Americans are likely working to plug it."

Allegations against the group were totally unfounded, according to Mr de Bretton Gordon, who is an adviser to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, an organisation that provides medical care within Syria. "I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of anything untoward, nor evidence of any linkage to rebel or terrorist groups,” he said. “They are an exceptionally brave group of people; we should be proud to support them”.