By Metin Mutanoglu, Faruk Tokat and Adham Kako
ANKARA (AA) – The head of the White Helmets civil defense agency said his organization has been subject to false charges and allegations because of its role as a witness to ongoing massacres in war-torn Syria.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Raed Salah said the White Helmets welcomes financial support from any country or organization provided that the funds were not politically-driven.
"By the end of 2012, some regions in Syria began to fall out of the regime control. As regime forces began to shell civilian settlements and carry out attacks, there was a need for a group to save civilians from these attacks,” he said.
According to Salah, the name of the civil defense agency was derived from the helmets worn by its members during rescue operations.
He said members of the White Helmets have reached 4,300 volunteers by the end of 2017. Nevertheless, they can only operate in certain areas where they are allowed to.
"As the regime designates us as a terror group, we cannot operate in areas under its control. We have been repeatedly threatened [by the regime]," he said.
"Also, we cannot operate in YPG/PKK-held areas,” he said, adding that White Helmets volunteers were arrested by YPG/PKK in 2015.
“They seized our ambulances and rescue equipment in Afrin,” he said. “Due to similar reasons, we cannot operate in Daesh-held areas.”
Salah said the civil defense agency can only operate in opposition-held areas in northern Syria, the Euphrates Shield zones and Oil Branch Operation zones.
“In addition to rescue operations, the White Helmets also intervene to extinguish fires, solve water and electricity problems and help with rubble cleaning,” he said.
Established in 2013, the White Helmets was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2013, the civil defense agency members were trained by Turkey’s Search and Rescue Association, AKUT.
Salah said the White Helmets accepts financial support from any country or organization on the condition that the funds were not politically-driven.
"We welcome help and support from everyone who wants to back the Syrian people,” he said. “We don’t have any objection. Our only condition is no political or military agenda is imposed on us.”
Salah said the organization is supported by countries as Qatar, UK, U.S., the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.
“We will ink an agreement with France,” he said. “The Turkish Red Crescent and IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) are also supporting us.”
The White Helmets chief said the civil defense agency has never got any financial support from Israel.
"We would never accept financial support from Israel as we view it as a country of occupation,” he said, going on to deny that his volunteers had been evacuated from western Syria through Israel amid a military operation by regime forces.
“The evacuation of our volunteers was not through Israel. The volunteers went to the occupied Golan Heights before moving to Jordan. From there, they left to other countries,” he said.
Salah dismissed claims that the White Helmets was carrying out chemical attacks in Syria and heaping the blame on the Syrian regime.
“The party that is conducting chlorine gas and chemical attacks in Syria is obvious,” he said.
“Who has got chlorine gas barrels? The regime does. Who uses Sarin gas? The regime does,” he said. “The Syrian regime is the only one that has Sarin gas. The only party capable of using and carrying such attacks is the regime.”
Salah said such accusations were levelled against his group because the White Helmets was a first witness to ongoing massacres and human rights violations in the war-torn country.
“Russia does its best to whitewash the regime," he said.
Salah said his volunteers were repeatedly targeted by regime forces while rescuing civilians.
"We have been targeted by both regime and Russian warplanes for many times,” he said.
He said some of the White Helmets centers had been hit by regime forces and allies for several times.
“A total of 255 volunteers have been killed so far,” he said.
Salah said a survey conducted last year showed that 85 percent of respondents said that they would seek help from the White Helmets if needed.
“This is a great success for us,” he said. “Our greatest success, however, is that we have saved 115,000 civilian lives."
“We have also planted the seeds of hope into the hearts and minds of a nation that was about to lose its hope," he said.
Syria has been locked in a devastating civil war since March 2011, when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.
*Ali Murat Alhas contributed to this story from Ankara