WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration has told Israel that it opposes secret shipments of cluster bombs to the Marxist government of Ethiopia for use against rebel troops and villages, officials said Sunday.
Officials said they have received several credible reports that Ethiopia's air force has recently begun dropping cluster bombs, which hurl deadly shrapnel over a wide area, in rebel-held areas.
If the bombs were U.S.-made or based on U.S. technology, their shipment to Ethiopia would probably be illegal under American law, officials said. But when the United States asked Israel whether it was providing the bombs to the Ethiopian regime, the response was "unclear," a U.S. diplomat said.
"They told us, in effect, that they are no longer sending any--that they aren't sending any right now," he said. "But they've been vague about what they've done in the past."
A spokeswoman for Israel's embassy in Washington, Ruth Yaron, said: "We don't sell cluster bombs to Ethiopia, and we don't give them either." Asked whether Israel had sent the bombs to Ethiopia in the past, Yaron replied, "I wouldn't be able to answer that, beyond what I've already said."
Administration officials said that the American ambassador in Israel, William A. Brown, has repeatedly told high Israeli officials that the United States is concerned about their reported aid to Ethiopia, including cluster bombs.
U.S. Supply Cut Off
The United States supplied cluster bombs to Israel until 1982, when the Reagan Administration halted shipments because Israel used them in civilian areas during its invasion of Lebanon. Cluster bombs were used by the United States in Vietnam and by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, often with devastating effect.
An official said Sunday that the Administration believes any cluster bombs going to Ethiopia "are more than likely of Israeli manufacture." Even so, he noted, the United States prohibits Israel from selling weapons based on U.S. designs or technology without approval from Washington.
The issue highlights a strange and little-noticed alliance between democratic Israel and Ethiopia's Soviet-backed dictatorship, one of the world's most repressive regimes.
The Jerusalem government has avidly pursued ties with Ethiopia for both strategic and humanitarian reasons. Strategically, Israel has been working to establish relationships with many African countries as a counterweight to the hostility of most Arab nations.
On a humanitarian level, Ethiopia is home to an estimated 18,000 Jews, and Israel hopes that by cooperating with the Addis Ababa regime, it can win emigration rights for those who wish to leave.
Israel and Ethiopia established diplomatic relations in October, ending a break of 16 years.
Even before the formal resumption of relations, U.S. officials said, Israel provided the Addis Ababa regime with new military hardware, including communications equipment. However, Israel has not publicly acknowledged any military aid or sales to Ethiopia, an Israeli official said.
The Ethiopian government has long been seeking military aid to help fight rebels in Eritrea, the area along the country's northern Red Sea coast. Eritrea has been in rebellion against the central government for 27 years.
Aiding Marxist Regime
The United States opposes any military aid to Ethiopia because it believes aid helps prop up the Marxist regime, officials said. In addition, they said, there have been many credible reports of attacks by the Ethiopian armed forces, including the air force, against civilians in Eritrea.
"These are not nice people," one official said.
Charges that Israel has supplied cluster bombs were first suggested by former President Jimmy Carter, who said last month that Ethiopia had received the bombs "from one of our Middle East allies." The Bush Administration's concern about the cluster bombs was first reported by The New York Times on Sunday.
Carter, who did not name Israel as the source of the bombs, said U.S. diplomats had told him "that the Ethiopian government was quite happy that they had finally acquired cluster bombs, and they thought they could end the war quickly because of the devastating effect of those cluster bombs being dropped on the villages in the north."
Israel has been seeking for several years to arrange emigration for the Ethiopian Jews, a remote community of black subsistence farmers who have kept Jewish traditions for centuries. A secret airlift brought thousands of the Jews out through neighboring Sudan in 1985, but the Sudanese government discovered the operation and stopped it.