WASHINGTON -- A massive airlift was under way last night to transport 18,000 Ethiopian Jews from their war-torn nation to resettlement in Israel, where they are all expected to arrive within the next day or so, U.S. officials said.
The rescue mission, which began about 7 a.m. EDT yesterday, was being undertaken by the Israeli government with the cooperation of Ethiopian authorities after direct intercession Wednesday by President Bush, the White House said.
El Al commercial jets and Ethiopian passenger aircraft began landing at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport about midday, jammed with passengers who had little or no luggage in order to get the maximum number aboard for the 3 1/2 -hour journey from the Horn of Africa.
A second, long-delayed phase of Operation Moses, the secret Israeli rescue effort of the mid-1980s, the airlift is expected to ferry all the remaining Jews out of Ethiopia within 24 to 36 hours, U.S. officials said.
Thousands gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in the besieged capital of Addis Ababa yesterday, waiting their turn to leave. Hundreds more packed the grounds inside, the Associated Press reported.
Plans for the mission have been under way for "quite some time," according to Israeli sources. It was prompted by the Ethiopian civil strife that already had driven most of the Jews from their villages in the northwestern province of Gonder to the capital city. Rebels advanced to within eight miles of Addis Ababa yesterday.
The airlift was facilitated by the resignation and flight from Ethiopia Tuesday of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had been using the Jews to bargain for weapons from Israel and refused to allow more than a few hundred to emigrate each month.
President Bush, who as vice president had been active in the mid-1980s rescue mission, sent a letter Wednesday to the new leader, acting President Tesfaye Gabre Kidan, asking his approval for the airlift. It was almost immediately granted, the White House said.
Israeli officials refused to comment publicly on the mission for fear of endangering the immigrants before they completed their flights over rebel-held territory.
But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called President Bush yesterday morning to thank him for his help, the White House announced.
"We have been informed the operation is proceeding smoothly," White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said of the airlift.
The United States will be sponsoring a London conference starting Monday to help bring an end to civil war in Ethiopia.
"We hope at that time to see the establishment of a provisional government and agreement on a plan for a political transition leading to peace and democracy," Mr. Fitzwater said.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said they had warned Israel not to locate the new immigrants in the occupied Arab territories, where settlements of Soviet Jews have became a major impediment to peace negotiations.
In New York, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said resettlement of the Ethiopian Jews would not be a problem.
"Actually the numbers are very small," Mr. Netanyahu said. "Almost all the Ethiopian Jews amount to roughly one month of Soviet Jews coming to Israel."
In many cases, the new arrivals from Ethiopia will be reunited with relatives who were spirited out of their homeland during the first Operation Moses, which transported thousands of Jews to safety before it was halted because of publicity.