First 'rescue flight' lands in Tel Aviv

Some 170 Israelis arrive from Georgia Tuesday; "There's nothing like being home," says one.

EL AL plane 1 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
EL AL plane 1 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
A wave of palpable relief washed over the first group of Israelis who disembarked from a special El Al flight from Georgia on Tuesday evening, after being rescued by a Foreign Ministry operation to bring them home. Some 170 people touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport - 30 of them Georgian Jews who had made aliya. In total, 600 Israelis and Jews are due back in Israel by Wednesday. Three planes carrying the bulk of Israeli businessmen and tourists in Georgia arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, following a hectic day in which the small embassy in Tbilisi struggled with frantic Israelis and Jews trying to get out of the country. The third plane, a Georgian Airways plane, was scheduled to arrive at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. Two El Al flights, organized by the Foreign Ministry, arrived Tuesday evening. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said there were no plans for any additional flights at this time. Israel had kept both the Georgian and Russian governments updated on the details of the passengers and outgoing flights, so as to avert any "errors." "The Israeli government is willing to do everything to get its citizens home," he added. "By tomorrow morning everyone will be out." "It was terrifying. We were in a foreign war in a foreign country," recounted Yardena Milo, of Yehud, who had returned on the flight from Tbilisi. "We heard shells going off... and explosions, and then we heard that the Russians had bombed the airport's radar, meaning that we could not get out. They were talking about getting us out over land through Armenia, but then we heard the Turkish border had been sealed off. There's nothing like being home," she added. Yossi Manesharu, of Ashdod, travelled to Georgia with his wife and three young children. "We were staying at the Marriott and then the war broke out. The atmosphere was bad, although we met very good people," he said. "We registered at the Israeli embassy, and then received word that the Defense Ministry had ordered us to evacuate the country. It was a mess at the embassy - 600 people tried to get on four buses to the airport to fly home," he added. The arrivals were welcomed back to Israel by officials from the Foreign Ministry, El Al and the Airports Authority, who handed roses to the passengers as they got off the plane. In an ironic twist, Danny Mor, a Ben-Gurion employee and the organizer of the welcoming ceremony, has a mother living in Georgia, who he was unable to reach for several hours. He received word from one of the passengers that his mother was safe. "Everything is alright," Mor said, obviously relieved. Pinchas Avivi, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, had earlier told reporters that Israel was using the outgoing flights to send Georgia two-and-a-half tons of medical supplies, including respirators, seven EKG machines and antibiotics. "All who wanted to receive help contacted us. Many Israelis have been in Georgia for a long time, and their passports were out of date. We got the passports ready overnight so that they could land this evening," Avivi said. He added that any Israelis who did not manage to exit Georgia through the El Al operation would be driven out of the country via the Azerbaijani border to Baku, and then flown to Israel. The Georgian Airways plane will return to Tbilisi with two respiratory machines and seven AKG machines, the first installment of what Levy said would be a much greater medical equipment shipment that would soon be flown to Georgia. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke Tuesday with Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili and offered Georgia humanitarian assistance. The Georgians, according to Israeli officials, expressed the need for doctors, and the logistics of sending a medical delegation to the war-torn region was being discussed. Livni, according to her office, thanked the Georgians for their help in locating and assisting in the evacuation of the Israelis in Georgia. Livni's conversation with Tkeshelashvili followed by a day a conversation she had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Herb Keinon and Judy Siegel contributed to this report.