In a series of meetings here this week that signal improved relations, United States and Ethiopian officials discussed a wide range of issues, including relief for famine victims there, continued emigration for Ethiopian Jews to Israel and peace efforts to end the 29-year-old Eritrean rebellion.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka yesterday expressed satisfaction with the outcome of his talks, which included a session with Undersecretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger Thursday.
Last March, the Bush administration refused to have any high-level contact with a senior envoy from Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.
U.S. officials said that the "emigration issue was discussed very forcefully" Thursday when Dinka and Eagleburger conferred for about an hour at the State Department. They said Eagleburger urged a free and accelerated flow of Ethiopian Jews, called Falashas. In recent weeks, a sudden interruption in the exodus of Falashas raised serious concerns over whether the Mengistu regime was using their fate to extract more military assistance from Israel.
Dinka strongly denied such reports of trading Falashas for arms from Israel. He said Ethiopia and Israel both "happen to be the odd man out in the middle of the Arab world. We have this feeling of being put in the same basket," he told a group of reporters and editors at The Washington Post.
Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Ruth Yaron said the departures of Jewish emigrants had "recently resumed," despite difficulties that had held up the exodus for close to a month.
Dinka said there was "no deliberate holding back or bargaining" on the fate of the would-be emigrants, but said the process was slowed down to control non-Jews who were trying to filter through.
Israeli sources have reported that an estimated 12,000 Ethiopian Jews who fled the embattled Gonder region were gathered in makeshift tents and camping outside the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, waiting for permission to leave the country.
Dinka said his government could not allow a sudden or massive exodus because neighboring Arab states, sensitive to the swelling number of world Jewry flooding into Israel, would suspect Ethiopia was trying to "tilt the balance."
Eagleburger made clear to Dinka, the importance the United States "attaches to free emigration and family reunification," and questioned the rate of allowing only 500 Falashas out every month, administration officials said.
Allegations have circulated here for months that Israel supplied Mengistu with cluster bombs and military advisers. Several weeks ago, reporters were given copies of a confidential report from congressional staff member Steve Morrison to Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) that quoted U.S. diplomats and Department of Defense sources as saying Israel has provided Ethiopia with cluster bombs and other weaponry.
The memo suggested that Israel was seeking a stable relationship with Mengistu because of Ethiopia's strategic location on the Red Sea.
Dinka vociferously denied that Ethiopia possessed or had used cluster bombs against the insurgents. Cluster bombs, released from attacking jets, spread hundreds of bomblets.
Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Yaron emphatically denied Israel was supplying Ethiopia with the lethal canisters. "We don't give them and we don't sell them to Ethiopia and there are no Israeli military instructors there," she said.
A senior State Department official said, "As you know, cluster bombs can be purchased on the international market. We have no evidence Israel is doing it; we cannot categorically say they don't; we have no evidence."
In separate comments to the media, Dinka reiterated accusations that Eritrean insurgents, who control pockets of northern Ethiopia, have blocked food relief shipments to Ethiopians threatened by famine because of the war and a continuing drought.