TO those he saved from bomb-shattered villages, James Le Mesurier was a hero, a “saint”.
So his untimely death this week has prompted many tears — but even more questions.
The former British Army officer, who dedicated his life to rescuing men, women and children in war-ravaged Syria through the volunteer search-and-rescue group the White Helmets, was found dead in the early hours of Monday.
The 48-year-old had apparently fallen from the balcony of his second-floor flat in Istanbul, Turkey.
His death came just days after he was branded a spy by Russia. And yesterday it emerged that witnesses have claimed to police that they heard James arguing with a woman just before he died.
Reports in the Turkish media say that James’s face had a cut on it and that his feet and hands were broken as if he had tried to break his fall.
BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban revealed he had deleted a strand of his tweets about the incident but stated: “There’s a good deal of suspicion it may be murder by a state actor, but others suggest he may have taken his own life.”
James’s friend Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, director of non-governmental organisation Doctors Under Fire, which supports medics in conflicts, is very concerned about the circumstances. He told The Sun: “The death is very suspicious.
“I was with him only a few weeks ago. He seemed fine. The suggestion that he would take his own life would surprise me.”
James ran the not-for-profit emergency response organisation Mayday Rescue, which in 2013 set up the White Helmets — officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence.
Mayday trained White Helmet volunteers to help civilian victims of the war in Syria. The group’s work has long been targeted by the Syrian regime under President Assad and its ally, Russia, who claim the White Helmets is a terrorist organisation.
In reality the group is providing a vital role, digging survivors out of rubble and taking them to safety.
White Helmets chairman Raed al-Salah claims the group has saved more than 119,000 people at a cost of more than 270 of its members.
Hamish said: “The White Helmets are the first responders. They are the NHS, if you like. It was James’s idea. He got the funding and the organisation has saved thousands of lives.
“It was a very sad day on Monday. There will be plenty of tears in Syria. They have lost a saint.”
It was at 5.30am on Monday that James’s body was found on the street in Istanbul’s central Beyoglu district by worshippers on their way to morning prayers. He had fractures to his head and legs.
'VERMIN WHO SHOULD BE ERADICATED'
A Turkish news agency says police have established that no one else had entered or left the apartment, which is part of Mayday’s offices and reportedly only accessible by fingerprint sensor.
Police have said they have an open mind on his death and have not ruled out a crime, with UK officials demanding a thorough investigation.
James and his wife Emma Winberg, a director at Mayday, moved to Turkey four years ago, since when attempts to discredit the White Helmets, mostly on Twitter, have been “incessant”, said Hamish.
They have been accused of supporting terrorist groups, staging air and artillery strikes for the camera and even faking chemical attacks. He said: “Russia and Syria are trying to discredit them, saying they are terrorists. It’s complete rubbish.”
The White Helmets post images and videos online of the devastation and human toll in Syria, to raise awareness of the situation there.
Being on the ground, they have also been in a unique position to properly document attacks on civilians, which has enabled them to gain support and funding from the US and European governments, including the UK.
But in 2016 James spoke of the “standard line of attack by the regime” when he described the trolling the organisation received.
Earlier this year he claimed the Russian military would not give the organisation safe passage into Deraa, in south west Syria, and added: “They said the White Helmets were vermin who should be eradicated.”
In 2016 the group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after campaigning by murdered MP Jo Cox.
The next year a film on the group’s work in Aleppo earned the Oscar for best documentary.
The award was derided by the Russian embassy in the UK, which tweeted: “Russia welcomes #Oscars award for ‘White Helmets’ film. Indeed, they are actors serving an agenda, not rescuers. #Oscarmistake.”
This month Andrew Murrison, the British minister for the Middle East, met White Helmets chairman Mr Salah and praised its work in the north western Syrian city of Idlib.
And he hit back at the lies told by the charity’s opponents, in particular the Syrian regime and the Russian government.
Three days later, on November 8, Maria Zakharova, Moscow’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, claimed James had a long record of working with al-Qaeda as an MI6 officer.
She tweeted: “The White Helmets’ co-founder, James Le Mesurier, is a former agent of Britain’s MI6, who has been spotted all around the world, including in the #Balkans and the #MiddleEast. His connections to terrorist groups were reported back during his mission in #Kosovo.”
The allegation was strongly denied on Monday by Dame Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, who said: “The Russian charges against him, that came out of the foreign ministry that he was a spy, are categorically untrue.”
She added in a tweet: “He was a real humanitarian. Syria is poorer for his loss.”
The announcement of James’s death has attracted vile trolling, and MP Rory Stewart tweeted in response: “These threads are the most offensive and tasteless comments conceivable on the death of a brave man deeply committed to humanitarian action.”
After the tragedy Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu claimed James’s wife Emma revealed he had been on medication for “intense stress”.
She added: “We took a sleeping pill around 4am. When I woke up the police were here and I saw my husband’s body in the street.’’
The Istanbul governor’s office said “comprehensive administrative and judicial investigations into Le Mesurier’s death have been initiated”.
A post-mortem is underway at Istanbul’s Forensic Medicine Institute to find the “exact cause” of death, and security camera footage is being examined.
And Dame Karen has given assurance that the UK will be watching the investigation.
WHO ARE THE WHITE HELMETS?
- The White Helmets are a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of opposition-controlled Syria and in Turkey, founded in 2014
- They were formed during the Syrian Civil War
- They work throughout the war-torn areas, carrying out medical evacuation, urban search and rescue after bombings, civilian evacuation and other essential and emergency service delivery
- As of 2018, the organisation said it had saved over 114,000 lives, with 204 White Helmet volunteers losing their lives in the process
- The group have been targeted in a misinformation campaign by Russian and Assad supporters, and accused of having links with terrorist organisations and staging their rescue missions, according to investigations by various journalists
- They're also banned from entering Kurdish controlled areas of Syria
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed UK media reports of James’s death as “an emotion-laden release of fake news” and “Rusophobic cliches”.
On its Facebook site, a statement read: “It is completely incomprehensible as to why the British press made the link with the Foreign Ministry’s official statements only now, since we have been expressing the same point for some time.”
It has done nothing to allay fears that James’s death was not as it seemed.
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