Syria's White Helmets Rescued Civilians One Day After Assad Dismissed Their Work

The emergency response team lost a volunteer and three offices after sustained airstrikes over Aleppo overnight.

Volunteers with the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, were desperately scrambling to pull civilians from the rubble following sustained airstrikes on Aleppo on Thursday night.

The bombing campaign came just a day after the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed the emergency response group, which has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, in a televised interview with the Associated Press.

"What did they do for Syria?" the president said.

The Assad regime has been accused of torturing its own citizens and using chemical weapons and barrels bombs against rebel forces. In his interview, Assad went on to cast doubt as to whether the organization was entirely non-politicized.

The White Helmets, which is funded by the UK and the Netherlands, continued to work even after three out of four of their bases in the city were leveled in the intense bombing raid overnight, disabling some of their ambulances and cutting off road access.

"What's happening now is annihilation," said Ammar al Selmo, the head of the White Helmets in Aleppo, in an interview with Sky News.

White Helmets tell BBC: 600 airstrikes in last 3 days. Heaviest since start of conflict. Totally run out of medical supplies #Syria #Aleppo

Ibrahim Alhaj, a volunteer with the group, said he believed the bases had been deliberately targeted by the government. “It is really critical," he told CBS News.

The White Helmets Ansari base, recently featured in a Netflix documentary about the group and its volunteers' work, was among those destroyed in the attack. The organization, which is staffed entirely by volunteers, tweeted Friday morning that one volunteer, Khalid al Naimi, had died in the bombardment. He was the third member of the same family to be killed since the war began.

The civil defence centre in Ansari & its brave volunteers were featured in @netflix film #TheWhiteHelmets.Today it…

Dramatic pictures emerging from Aleppo showed some of the devastation on Friday morning. A local official in the city told the Financial Times that mosques suspended evening prayers last night as intense bombardment continued. "There is no safe place to go," an Aleppo opposition council member said.

“Anger has filled everyone who has remained in this city of rubble,” Bara’a, one of the remaining nurses in the city, told the Guardian. "Many of the wounded are children, and when you look in their eyes they weep and say we have nothing left. Curse this justice."

Syrian radiologist Mohammad Abu Rajab, one of the few physicians left in the city, said his neighborhood was being hit "right now" by missiles.

"We can hear the planes right now," Rajab told Reuters late last night. "The planes are not leaving the sky, helicopters, barrel bombs, warplanes."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said as many as 100 airstrikes have targeted eastern Aleppo since Thursday night.

The group said at least 16 people, including two children, had died in multiple bombardments across the city on Friday morning. Other sources placed the death toll much higher — the BBC reported that as many as 30 people were killed in Thursday night's bombardment and 10 more died on Friday morning, as rescue workers continued to pull people from the rubble.

Unverified footage, run by Sky News, appeared to show a five-year-old girl being rescued alive from the rubble in Bab al-Nairab district in Aleppo. Her entire family, including four siblings, were reportedly killed in the strike.

The SOHR claimed helicopters dropped barrel bombs in the Sheikh Najjar neighborhood. International observers have repeatedly accused Assad's forces of using barrel bombs, a claim the president once again denied in his interview.

Syrian government troops announced the operation late Thursday, warning civilians to "stay away" from "the headquarters and positions of the armed terrorist gangs", Reuters reported, citing a source close to the administration in Damascus.

The air offensive follows the collapse of a ceasefire agreement on Monday. Talks at the United Nations Summit between the Syrian, Russian, and rebel forces operating in the country broke down on Thursday. The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was unusually frank when he described the talks as "painful and disappointing".

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