Co-founder of White Helmets found dead days after Russia claimed he was a spy

11 November 2019, 11:05 | Updated: 11 November 2019, 23:43

A former British Army officer who co-founded the White Helmets volunteer force in Syria has been found dead in Istanbul.

Last week, James Le Mesurier was accused of being a spy in a tweet from the Russian foreign ministry.

A neighbour said his body was found on Monday near his home in central Istanbul's Beyoglu district.

The Mayday Rescue Foundation, which he founded in 2014, described him as a "great leader" and a "visionary" as it confirmed his death.

It is believed that Mr Le Mesurier fell from the balcony of his home office in a suspected suicide, a security source told the Reuters news agency.

His wife told police that she and her husband went to bed at about 4am after taking sleeping pills, the source added.

Later, she was apparently woken by knocking on the door, subsequently discovering him lying in the street surrounded by police.

Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford said his wife had been "telling friends that he had just begun taking anti-depressants".

Crawford added: "She says she was not disturbed by any intruder and appeared to be at pains to try to quash rumours that somehow he'd been killed."

On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry posted: "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 Middle East.

"His connections to terrorist groups were reported back during his mission in Kosovo."

Crawford said that because of his connection to the White Helmets, Mr Le Mesurier was the "focus of disinformation and hate".

That was "not just by social media trolls but also by the Syrian regime and the Russian government, who see the White Helmets as a terrorist organisation", she added.

Those regimes complained that the White Helmets were "faking a number of airstrikes, faking civilian injuries and casualties".

But Crawford said Mr Le Mesurier was "revered by many in Syria".

He was awarded an OBE in 2016 for services to Syria Civil Defence (the White Helmets' official name) and the protection of civilians in Syria.

The White Helmets have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in Syria's civil war.

Their endeavours reached a huge audience through a Netflix documentary.

In 2017, seven members of the group were shot dead at their base by unidentified attackers.

They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, and have received funding from Western countries including the UK and US.

The group insist they are not partisan.

The Mayday Rescue Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation with offices in Amsterdam and Istanbul.

In addition to various governments, its projects have also been bank-rolled by the United Nations.

It said in a statement: "It is with very heavy hearts that Mayday Rescue must confirm the death of James Le Mesurier.

"As the founder and CEO of Mayday Rescue, James dedicated his life to helping civilians respond to emergencies in conflicts and natural disasters.

"Nowhere was the impact of his important work felt so strongly as in Syria, where Mayday supports a network of volunteer rescue workers known as Syria Civil Defence, also known as The White Helmets.

"Their work has saved countless lives of civilians affected by the conflict."