Turkish police have launched an investigation after the British co-founder of a Syrian emergency rescue service was found dead in Istanbul.
The body of James Le Mesurier, a former army officer who helped to establish the group known as the White Helmets, was discovered in a street in Turkey’s largest city before dawn on Monday.
Turkish media outlets said that he appeared to have fallen from a three-storey building in the central Karakoy district. The Istanbul governor’s office confirmed his death and said it had opened a “wide-ranging” investigation.
The Turkish news channel Haberturk said Le Mesurier’s wife told police he had suffered from high levels of stress in recent days, and had been taking sleeping pills and other medication. UK diplomats said the circumstances of his death were unclear.
Le Mesurier and the organisation he founded had come under fresh attack in recent days from Moscow. Russia has long accused the White Helmets — the informal name of the group known as the Syrian Civil Defence — of being a project by western intelligence services to undermine its ally Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president.
On Friday, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman repeated a claim that Le Mesurier was a former agent with the British intelligence service MI6 and said Moscow would “very much want to hear what London has to say about these facts”, according to a report by Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news outlet. Le Mesurier had previously denied being a former MI6 officer.
Supporters say the White Helmets, which runs on contributions from international donors, including the UK and Germany, are the victims of a Russian-sponsored slur campaign.
They credit the group with saving more than 100,000 lives through its work to rescue people in opposition-held areas of Syria, which have been targeted by indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Syrian army and its Russian backers.
Raed al-Saleh, who heads the White Helmets leadership council, said Le Mesurier and other White Helmet colleagues had suffered “severe stress” due to the accusations against them. “James was a great person, and very influential,” said Mr Saleh, adding: “This is a big loss for us.”
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the UK’s House of Commons, said he was “deeply concerned” to hear about Le Mesurier’s death.
“His heroic work in defence of human rights in Syria has sadly made him many enemies, and Russian officials have frequently accused him of links to terrorist organisations,” the parliamentarian said, adding that UK officials should be part of any investigation.
The UK’s Foreign Office said it was “deeply saddened” by Le Mesurier’s death but added that It would be inappropriate to comment further.
Le Mesurier had said he established the Mayday Rescue charity in 2014 after being moved by the sight of Syrian civilians rushing to rescue people from the rubble of homes, schools and hospitals in the aftermath of attacks.
The organisation set up a training and support programme to establish a more formal network of rescuers called the Syrian Civil Defence.
The group gained growing prominence as videos shot by volunteers using cameras mounted on their distinctive white helmets captured the horrors of the unfolding war and spread on social media. Their material has been used in war crime investigations.
White Helmet volunteers were featured in two documentaries released in 2016, one of which won an Oscar.
The group said more than 250 of its volunteers had been killed in action in the eight-year Syrian civil war, which has claimed an estimated 500,000 lives.
While Russia cast doubt on the White Helmets’ credibility, European partners have continued to offer support. A UK resettlement scheme for White Helmet volunteers was announced last year.
Andrew Murrison, the UK minister for the Middle East, said last week after a meeting with the White Helmets’ chairman that Russia and Syria were trying to “divert attention” from their own attacks on Syria. “White Helmet volunteers continue to be subjected to a massive disinformation campaign by the Syrian regime and the Russian government,” he said.
Mr Saleh said the White Helmets continued to be threatened by air strikes on their centres in Syria, adding that funding cuts for the humanitarian response in the country had also started to bite.
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar and Andrew England