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Mengistu Departure from Ethiopia Has No Impact Yet on Plight of Jews

The sudden resignation and departure from Ethiopia of President Mengistu Haile Mariam has not produced any immediate change in conditions for the country’s Jewish population, State Department officials and Jewish activists say.

That is because the rebel forces seeking to overturn the government remain at least 40 miles from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where the country’s estimated 18,000 Jews have converged for months in the hope of being allowed to leave for Israel.

While it is unclear how the rebels would treat the Jewish population, it is generally assumed that the disruptions caused by a rebel invasion would interrupt the steady flow of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Israeli and U.S. officials, as well as Jewish organizations in the United States, are monitoring the situation closely, watching for any sign of a change in the situation.

There is hope that the rebels will be at least temporarily appeased by the resignation Tuesday of Mengistu, who has been in power since he staged a coup in 1974 to depose Emperor Haile Selassie.

A State Department official said it was even possible that the situation in the capital could remain calm for awhile. “It’s hard for us to guarantee that there is going to be an emergency,” the official said.

Concern about the plight of Ethiopian Jews prompted President Bush to send former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) to Addis Ababa last month to meet with Mengistu and other senior Ethiopian leaders.

Boschwitz made it clear that the United States wanted the Ethiopian government to increase the rate of Jewish emigration from the recent level of 1,000 a month.

EMIGRATION RATE UP SLIGHTLY

In the first half of May, the government allowed 838 Jews to emigrate. If this pace continues through the end of the month, the total will surpass the 1,008 who left in April for Israel, said William Recant, executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Recant attributed the increase to efforts made by Boschwitz during 13 hours of talks with Ethiopian leaders.

It remains unclear whether the new government will be any more amenable to increasing the emigration rate.

But State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Tuesday that Ethiopia is more likely to achieve peace by virtue of Mengistu’s resignation than it would if he were still in power.

“Everyone who is in a rebel faction was united in one regard in that they were not supportive of the current leadership,” she said.

Deputy White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk said of Mengistu’s departure for exile in Kenya: “We welcome this development.”

The White House also announced Tuesday that it will host a conference in London starting May 27 between the government and the three major insurgent groups from the north, two from the province of Eritrea and one from Tigre.

The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The aim of such a conference is to secure a “peaceful transition” in Ethiopia, Popadiuk said.

“We hope that all government and insurgent forces in the country will cease all military operations,” Popadiuk said. “We now hope that the door is open for the realization of peace and democracy in this tragic situation.”

Assuming the presidency from Mengistu is Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, the vice president. In a statement here, the Ethiopian Embassy said he “is temporarily assuming power until a transitional government is formed.”

The State Department official said “it is our understanding that he is more a professional figure than a party ideologue, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.”

But Recant expressed concern that the new president may not be assuming a ceremonial post and will exert power that may upset the insurgents. In that case, the rebels “may not trust him any more than they did Mengistu,” he said.

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