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White Helmets Rescuer Among Several Killed In Syria Attack


The White Helmets in Syria rush into dangerous areas held by the opposition to rescue the wounded and recover the dead. Many of these rescuers have died in the course of their work. This weekend, the group itself was targeted. Gunmen murdered several White Helmet volunteers in one of their offices. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut reports one of the victims was well-known for a rescue last year.


MOHAMMED DEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The world first met Mohammed Deeb as he rescued a baby girl from the rubble of a building that had collapsed under the force of an airstrike in Syria. In the video that went viral, Deeb hugs the girl close to his chest and sobs.


DEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "When I saw her, I imagined that she was my baby girl," he says. Deeb is a member of the White Helmets. These volunteers in rebel-held parts of Syria act as search and rescue teams where there is none. They're backed by the U.S. State Department, who's given them more than $20 million and some training. But on Saturday, Deeb and six of his colleagues were found murdered.

MOUAWIA AGA: (Through interpreter) The scene was very, very painful and horrible.

SHERLOCK: Mouawia Aga arrived at the office in the town of Sarmeen just as the victims were being placed into body bags.

AGA: (Through interpreter) We saw them all killed with a bullet in the head from behind. The way we found them suggested they'd gather them in the center of the room.

SHERLOCK: Aga is a White Helmets media volunteer who usually documents their rescue efforts. Deeb and another of the murdered volunteers, Bassel Kassas, were his cousins. Some 197 members of the White Helmets group have died during rescue missions, usually as a result of airstrikes or combat in the area. This was one of the worst direct attacks on them. And who the perpetrators are remains a mystery, Aga said.

AGA: (Through interpreter) These men risked their lives to rescue the injured. This is shocking. And until now, it's not even comprehensible.

SHERLOCK: The attackers stole two vehicles the White Helmets used as ambulances. They took a generator from the office and the victims' mobile phones, leading some to believe that theft was the motive. But Mounir Mustafa, the deputy director of the White Helmets, told me he doesn't believe that this was a simple robbery.

MOUNIR MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) For sure this is not a robbery. One of the ambulances that was stolen was found completely burned.

SHERLOCK: He said the attackers dumped the vehicle on the side of a road. The office is in an area controlled by anti-government rebels, mostly jihadists, but they have generally allowed the White Helmets to do their work. So Mustafa suspects that this could even be the Syrian regime or its backers that infiltrated the area. The regime has threatened the White Helmets in the past, and the organization has assisted investigators looking into the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons. For now, though, the group is focusing on burying its dead.


SHERLOCK: Funerals for the seven men took place at the weekend. Videos show family and friends gathered around the body of one of the victims, stroking his head as they say goodbye. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKY CHANCE SONG, "FEATHERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.