26 Oct 2016

NZ to send expert to train Syrian 'White Helmets'

5:11 pm on 26 October 2016

A New Zealand urban search and rescue expert will head to the Middle East to help train the Syrian civil defence organisation known as the White Helmets.

White Helmet volunteers carry a boy they rescued from rubble in Aleppo.

White Helmet volunteers carry a boy they rescued from rubble in Aleppo. Photo: AFP

The White Helmets help rescue Syrian civilians from bombed and shelled buildings in the war-torn country.

A New Zealand Fire Service urban search and rescue officer will travel to Turkey and Jordan in the next week, for a four-month deployment to help train White Helmet volunteers.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will contribute around $100,000 to the training project.

Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne said the White Helmets requested New Zealand's support because of the work urban search and rescue teams did following the Christchurch earthquake.

"It's because of that, and the United Nations recognition that came from that, that the White Helmets have made this approach to New Zealand for some assistance - given the pretty awful situation they face in training their people to get to grips with recovery, after some of the terrible situations in Syria," Mr Dunne said.

White Helmets search for survivors amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following air strikes on the Syrian northwestern city of Idlib in June this year.

White Helmets search for survivors amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following air strikes on the Syrian northwestern city of Idlib in June this year. Photo: AFP

The government's support for the White Helmets was not a sign New Zealand was taking a side in the conflict, he said.

"We don't have a view about whether they are politically aligned or not - they are the Syrian Civil Defence Association.

"They have a reputation for having saved thousands of people who have been affected by the situation in that country, and we will work alongside them in a purely humanitarian role without getting involved in any of the politics - this person will be providing training advice and that will be the limit of the mandate."

The White Helmets' efforts have been focused recently on Aleppo, which has been under aerial bombardment for weeks now.

Once Syria's largest city, and the country's commercial and industrial hub, Aleppo has been devastated by fighting since 2012.

It has been left divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad's forces controlling the west and rebels the east.

At the start of September, troops and Iranian-backed militiamen severed the rebels' last route into the east and placed its 275,000 residents under siege.

Two weeks later, following the collapse of a nationwide truce brokered by the US and Russia, the government launched a ground offensive to take full control of the city, accompanied by an aerial bombardment of unprecedented scale and intensity.

- RNZ / BBC

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