A large group of Ethiopian Jews was airlifted today by U.S. military transport planes from a refugee camp on the plains of eastern Sudan to Israel in an operation planned by the Central Intelligence Agency, reliable sources said.
The Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, were moved in a top-secret and closely timed operation that began at dawn, when the first of about 10 propeller-driven C130 transport aircraft landed at a gravel airstrip about eight miles north of Gedaref, the sources said. They said the operation had been approved by the White House.
[A White House spokesman said Friday night that he could not comment on the report.]
The Falashas, who had been moved during the night from Tawawa refugee camp about six miles away, were loaded swiftly, probably in groups of 80 to 90. The planes were believed to have followed a course over the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and then to Israel, where the Falashas will be resettled.
It could not be determined immediately how many Falashas were airlifted today, but about 900 of the Ethiopian Jews, who have lived as refugees in Sudan for about a year, were believed to have been in the Gedaref area, about 200 miles southeast of Khartoum.
This reporter was in Gedaref at the time of the airlift, but was detained by the Gedaref branch of the Sudanese State Security Office after approaching the airstrip late Thursday afternoon. The reporter was held in the state security compound for 16 hours and released when the operation was apparently completed.
From the state security compound, the drone of airplane engines could be heard clearly, beginning at 6 a.m. Sudanese security officers began returning to their headquarters, covered with red dust and carrying flashlights and assault rifles, by 10:30 a.m., presumably an hour after the airlift was finished. That would indicate that the operation, apparently run with precision and efficiency, was completed in less than four hours.
The groundwork for the dramatic conclusion to the Falashas story in Sudan was laid in a meeting between Vice President Bush and Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri March 6, sources said..
Nimeri reportedly told Bush that he had no objection to the removal of the Falashas from Sudan, provided it was done quickly and quietly.
About 7,800 Falashas were taken from Sudan to Israel from Nov. 21 to Jan. 6 in a secret airlift called Operation Moses, which ended two days after news of the airlift leaked in Israel.
The Falashas issue is a delicate matter for the Sudanese. While Nimeri's government is a close ally of the United States, Sudan is a member of the Arab League and has no relations with Israel. When the story of Operation Moses broke, it was denounced by several Arab states, and Ethiopia.
In an interview after the first airlift, Nimeri said: "I won't help Israel by sending them more people. But if they want to go away from here -- to Europe, to the United States, to any place else -- I don't care."
That comment apparently was the basis of Bush's quickly concluded negotiations with Nimeri.
Sources here said Nimeri should ride out in any criticism for tacitly backing the airlift. To the Arab world, Nimeri may say that he was double-crossed by the Americans, who had promised him that the Falashas would be taken to the United States, not Israel.
The area of the Tawawa camp where the Falashas were believed to be living was deserted this morning after the airlift.
"Not a soul was stirring there," said Jim Taylor, a British volunteer working in the camp. "It was completely empty."
Yesterday, the same area had been well-populated by thin and ragged children and worried-looking adults, most of whom had insisted they were not Falashas, perhaps because they feared they would not be able to leave Sudan or would have to return to Ethiopia.
It is unlikely that the airlift managed to get all of the Falashas out of Sudan, experts say, for there may be a small number who were not in Tawawa, or who just crossed the border from Ethiopia, where it is believed that as many as 10,000 remain.