Seven member of the Syrian White Helmets rescue group were shot dead by unknown gunmen on Saturday, sparking a manhunt and deep suspicions in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib.
The men were killed in their operations centre in the village of Sarmin at dawn on Saturday. Two of their vehicles as well as several of their distinctive white helmets were stolen, the group said.
Many White Helmet volunteers have been killed in airstrikes during the six year Syrian war but opposition activists said it was the first time that members had been shot dead like this.
Photographs from the scene showed the volunteers’ bodies lying across the floor of the centre and blood splashed over the logo of the White Helmets group. All had been shot execution-style at close range.
“The heart is saddened, there are tears in our eyes for you departure,” said Raed al-Saleh, the founder of the White Helmets. “May God strengthen us and make us patient for facing this tragedy.”
One of the men killed was Mohammed Abu Kifah, who appeared in a widely-shared video last year where he wept with emotion after rescuing a baby girl from the rubble of a bombed-out building.
The White Helmets have been lauded by Western countries for saving civilian lives in opposition areas in Syria and in 2016 they narrowly missed out on winning the Nobel Peace prize.
But the group also operates in areas controlled by jihadists and supporters of the Assad regime regularly accuse them of allying with terrorists.
Idlib province is now mainly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist rebel group that is dominated by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.
Activists in Idlib said they were baffled by the killings but did not think that HTS was responsible. The group has not targeted White Helmets in the past.
One theory was that agents of the Assad regime had killed the men to create suspicion and distrust between rival rebel groups.
HTS recently fought an open battle against Ahrar al-Sham, another prominent rebel group, and there is lingering distrust in Idlib as a result.
“The ones who did this are clever. They want to make conflicts worse between the rebel groups and show that there is no security and no safety in the opposition areas,” said Abdulkafe al-Hamdo, an English…