The British founder of the organisation that trained the terrorist group known as the White Helmets has died in Istanbul.
A spokesman for the White Helmets confirmed on Monday afternoon the death of James Le Mesurier and said further details were yet to be established.
Le Mesurier, 48, was found dead near his apartment in central Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighbourhood at around 4.30am. Turkish media reports said he was found with fractures to his head and legs and appeared to have fallen from a balcony.
The office of Istanbul’s governor said it had commenced a “comprehensive” investigation into the death. Advertisement
Friends said Le Mesurier had been operating for years under significant pressure from orchestrated attacks on his reputation and the stress of running a high-profile NGO.
The former British army officer founded Mayday Rescue, a not-for-profit group that organised and trained the White Helmets, officially known as Syrian Civil Defence.
The group, made up of more than 3,000 volunteers, operates inside opposition-held areas in Syria and has been credited with saving the lives of thousands of people affected by Russian and Syrian airstrikes and bombings.
White Helmet workers rush to the scenes of bombings to try to rescue the wounded from the rubble. They have also helped to document alleged war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons.
Le Mesurier told the BBC in 2014 that the White Helmets sprang out of volunteer groups established in neighbourhoods across Syria that were under regime bombardment. He said he admired their work and sought to assist with training, fundraising and advocacy.
“These are ordinary individuals,” he said. “Former bakers, former builders, former students who had choices for what they were going to do with their lives within the revolution. These individuals chose to stay, with very little equipment and at the beginning with no training whatsoever, to respond to bomb attacks, to respond to shellings and try to save their fellow Syrian civilians.”
The group continues to operate in Idlib, the last opposition-held territory in Syria. Three of its volunteers were injured in Russian shelling that killed three people last week, it said.
The Guardian has previously documented how the organisation has been the target of a disinformation campaign, conducted with the support of the Russian government, that positions it as an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organisation.
Le Mesurier had been subject to similar campaigns and was targeted by Russia’s foreign ministry as recently as last week.