Russia was denounced at the United Nations Thursday after describing the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the White Helmets as a “threat” and demanding their removal from the war-torn country, diplomats said.
“(The) presence of White Helmets is a source of threat,” the Russian representative said in a closed meeting of the UN Security Council called by Moscow, according to a diplomat present at the talks.
“We call on western countries to move the White Helmets from Syria. Terrorists should be removed. (It’s) not a good idea to have them in civilized society,” the diplomat quoted the Russian envoy as saying.
Moscow’s representative specifically highlighted their presence in Idlib, Syria’s last major rebel stronghold, according to another diplomat speaking anonymously.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, saves those wounded in attacks on rebel zones.
Russia does not consider members present in Syria’s rebel areas to be rescue workers and has already accused them several times in the past of being linked to terror groups.
According to several diplomatic sources, the United States, Britain and France reacted with fury and dismay.
The US condemned the “outrageous and false accusations of Russia. The White Helmets are a humanitarian organization. Russia continues to spread false information,” according to the sources.
Britain meanwhile called on the Russians to “stop wasting the council’s time” while France said it was “surprised and dismayed,” adding that the group has “saved hundreds of people.”
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken large parts of Syria from opposition fighters and extremists since Russia intervened in September 2015.
Moscow’s demands to the Security Council came as a planned buffer zone in northwest Syria was cleared of heavy armaments and a new deadline loomed for the tougher task of Turkey convincing extremists to pull out.
The demilitarized zone ringing the Idlib region is the result of a deal reached last month between rebel backer Turkey and government ally Russia to stave off a regime assault on the rebel bastion.