Life under the bombs with a team of White Helmet rescue workers in Syria’s most dangerous city, Aleppo.
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence units – or White Helmets – have dismissed claims that they are biased actors in the conflict following a controversial report linking the organisation to alleged US government attempts to overthrow the Syrian government.
In an article published by US-based progressive website AlterNet on Monday, journalist Max Blumenthal accused the group of undermining United Nations aid work in Syria.
The two-part report, which was shared thousands of times on Twitter, was widely condemned by journalists and anti-Assad activists.
The White Helmets came to prominence for their work rescuing those trapped in rubble after air strikes by Syrian government and Russian warplanes.
Blumenthal argued the group’s purported impartiality was compromised by its acceptance of funds from a US federal agency, which he alleged had promoted political subversion in Cuba and Venezuela in the past.
The author also criticised the group for calling on Western forces to intervene militarily in Syria and establish a no-fly zone.
“The White Helmets’ leadership is driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them,” Blumenthal wrote.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Tuesday, White Helmets members in Aleppo said they rejected the suggestion that they are influenced by any foreign governments.
“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,” said Najeb Fakoure, a senior White Helmets member.
Fakoure denied the money came with any strings attached and said his group’s aims were apolitical.
“We don’t follow any agenda. Whether it’s the US or the Europeans, nobody puts conditions on their support.
“I don’t know how humanitarian workers can follow an agenda. If we were a political party it would make sense … but we’re not.”
Ahmad, another White Helmets member who did not give his surname for fear of reprisals, stressed there was nothing untoward about the work he and his colleagues were doing.
“These [accusations] are all aimed at damaging our reputation … I used to be a mechanic, my friends – like me – had normal civilian jobs but as the circumstances worsened, we took up humanitarian work,” Ahmad said, adding he didn’t belong to any military or political faction.
Residents of the besieged rebel-held areas of Aleppo also spoke out in defence of the White Helmets.
Malek al-Hammo, a resident in the Salahuddin area of Aleppo, told Al Jazeera there was an effort to “reduce the value” of the White Helmets’ work by the government.
“They [White Helmets] are working very hard in a very dangerous situation, doing something few others could do … They even work when the planes and helicopters are still shelling,” Hammo said.
The work of the White Helmets has also earned the group international recognition with a Nobel peace prize nomination.
Aleppo is currently the focus of an intense bombing campaign led by the Syrian government and backed by Russia to clear a rebel-held enclave in the east. The intensity of the aerial bombardment has been described as “unprecedented” in its ferocity throughout the more than five-year-long civil war.
About 275,000 people are besieged in the rebel area of the city, and almost 300 civilians have died in the 15 days since a ceasefire to stop hostilities in the area collapsed.
In government-held western Aleppo, about 25 people have died from rebel shelling during the same period, according to the Syrian Observatory.
Zouhir al-Shimale in Aleppo contributed to this report