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White Helmets volunteer killed in air strike as group misses out on Nobel prize

Rescue worker also killed responding to bombing in Daraa as Syrian Civil Defence Force, among nominees for prestigious prize, goes 'back to work'
Syrian White Helmets has 2,900 rescue volunteers across Syria (AFP)

A Syrian White Helmets rescue centre was targeted and completely destroyed on Friday morning in Syria even as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, for which the civil rescue group was nominated, was taking place in Oslo, Norway. 

Announcing the attacks on their social media page, the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence Force, said they were going "back to work" after its centre was targeted in Hama.

Raed Saleh, who heads the White Helmets, confirmed to the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media office that its rescue centre in the countryside of Hama was "bombed and completely destroyed." 

No details were given as to who exactly targeted the group's rescue centre. 

The rescue volunteer group also reported the death of one of its volunteers earlier today in Daraa.

Mahmoud al-Muhammad was killed responding to the bombing of civilians leaving Friday prayers, the group said on Twitter.

According to a statement released by the Syria Campaign, al-Muhammad was killed moments after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced and that his death brings the number of White Helmets killed in action to 146.

The campaign is also launching a "People's Million campaign" aimed at matching the amount that is given to winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Anna Nolan who directs the Syria Campaign said: “Today the White Helmets lost a brave volunteer and narrowly missed out on the Nobel Peace Prize. Over the past few days the outpouring of love and support for these heroes has been overwhelming. That’s why we’re launching the ‘People’s Million’ campaign."

READ: Why the White Helmets also deserved the Nobel

The White Helmets was a popular choice for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, with 300,000 people signing an online petition backing their nomination.

In the end the Nobel awarding committee gave the prize to the president of Colombia for his efforts in securing a historic peace deal to end 50 years of war with FARC rebels.

The Nobel committee praised Juan Manuel Santos for his “resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.

The rescue group congratulated Santos for winning the Nobel Peace Prize on social media, saying it "sincerely" wished the Colombian people peace. 

White Helmets chief Raed Saleh told AFP that his group had been hoping to receive the prize, which went instead to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to end Latin America's longest conflict.

"We congratulate the winner on the prize and hope for peace for all of Colombia's people," Saleh said by phone from Turkey.

"For us, saving a life remains the most important prize that we could receive," Saleh said.

The group, which operates in rebel-held areas, is credited with saving thousands of civilians across Syria amid regular air and missile strikes by Syrian government and Russian forces.

The group has received millions in aid from Western governments including $23m from USAID and more than $18m from the UK foreign office. Other governments supporting the civil defence operation include Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands and Japan.

Partly due to this funding, the rescue group has faced criticism from activists on social media after journalist and activist Max Blumenthal published an "expose" claiming the group is a political actor in the Syrian civil war. 

In the article, published on the US-based news site AlterNet and shared thousands of times on Twitter, Blumenthal accused the group of undermining the United Nation's aid effort in Syria.

Blumenthal in his piece wrote: "The White Helmet's leadership is driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them."

The group hit back at the criticism and rejected Blumenthal's criticism, denying claims that the money donated to the group comes with strings attached, and insisting the group's aims were apolitical. 

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Najeb Fakoure, a senior White Helmets member, said: "We accept funds to buy equipment and so we can do our humanitarian work... We need the money to address our urgent needs as we have lost many of our ambulances." 

Earlier this year, Middle East Eye sat down with Raed Saleh who heads the White Helmets. Saleh held Russia directly responsible for the increase in civilian casualties, after a number of White Helmets were killed by Russian and Syrian government air strikes.

He also told MEE that the "international community had failed Syria" as it focused on the symptoms of the five-year-long civil war and not the root cause, which is "Assad's continued rule".

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