U.S. 'Horrified' by Brutal Assassination of White Helmets, Shot Dead in Their Sleep

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, evacuate a child during a training session in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area east of the capital, Damascus, on November 22, 2016. AMER ALMOHIBANYGetty

The United States has condemned the killing of seven medics from the Syrian Civil Defense Units, popularly known as the White Helmets, after they were shot in their sleep Saturday.

The bodies of the first responders from the group, featured in the 2016 Netflix documentary White Helmets and a favorite to win last year's Nobel Peace Prize, were found in their beds in a safe house in Sarmeen, in Syria's embattled Idlib province, in the early morning.

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According to the Associated Press, the assassin or assassins used pistols equipped with silencers. The seven dead men were discovered by their colleagues when other volunteers from the group arrived to start a shift, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. Each had died from a gunshot wound to the head.

"We are saddened and horrified to hear about the brutal murders of seven Syrian Civil Defense Members, more widely known as the White Helmets, in Sarmeen, Idlib," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

"These cowardly acts of masked men took the lives of civilian volunteers who work tirelessly as first responders in order to save lives in incredibly dangerous environments. We want to send our condolences to the families of these heroes and hope they are able to seek justice for the loss of their loved ones at the hands of these criminals."

It is not clear which of Syria's many armed groups hostile to the White Helmets carried out the attack. Rami Abdurrahman, the director of SOHR, explained there was possibly a criminal element to the killings; or the deaths could have been orchestrated to "harm the image of the Nusra Front and to show that Idlib is not safe."

Idlib province is one of the last areas in western Syria to remain in rebel hands following the fall of Aleppo to government forces in December last year. The mainstay of rebel forces from Syria's second city, including the White Helmets, escaped to Idlib province in the aftermath of the fighting.

The area is under the sway of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of Islamist brigades, of which the Nusra Front comprises the largest force.

The Nusra Front is a Salafist group that is opposed to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and fighting for the creation of an Islamic State. In 2015, it was Al-Qaeda's affiliate in a patchwork of extremist groups fighting in northwest Syria and Lebanon.

In July 2016, the Nusra Front broke off from Al-Qaeda. Despite the separation, the U.S. State Department still considers Nusra to have strong links with the militant Sunni organization.

The White Helmets were established in 2014 and operate almost exclusively in areas held by rebels and parts of Turkey, which also sponsors the group. The White Helmets describe themselves as "a neutral and impartial organization" dedicated to providing emergency assistance to Syrians caught up in the six-year war.

While the White Helmets have received international recognition for their acts, supporters of Assad and his government accuse them of regularly breaking their nonpartisan vow and of helping rebels commit atrocities.