Cuban pilots brought to Israel 150,000 Jews from Iraq, Iran, India and Yemen in the 1950s, the French daily La Liberation reported yesterday.

Captain Rolando Marron de Estrada, 73, a Cubana Airlines retiree who devoted himself to studying the history of the Cuban air force, recently completed a book uncovering details of an operation that had been covert for 60 years.

The report in La Liberation, based on an interview Marron gave the Cuban youth daily Juventud Rebelde, says that during the two-year operation, 115,000 Jews from Iraq, 25,000 from Iran and a few hundred from India and Yemen were flown to Israel.

The operation began as a result of the strong friendship between an Israeli diplomat posted in New York, whose name was not released, and a Cuban businessman called Otero-Rosello, who was president of a Cuban airline, Marron said in the interview.

The airline agreed to fly Jews from Iraq and other states to Israel and set up a branch in Cyprus.

"The condition of the Jewish communities in the surrounding Arab states was difficult due to historic conflicts", Marron was quoted as saying.

"Since the governments of those Arab countries prohibited the Jews from leaving by land, and since transport by sea was difficult, the Israeli government organized one of the most important aerial mass migrations in history."

Marron, a veteran of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, started flying at 17 and four years later organized with a few friends a small fleet that took part in the war against Fulgencio Batista's regime.

The operation took place on the backdrop of worldwide sympathy for the State of Israel's establishment and during its early years. Marron mentions seven of those who took part in the operation by name.

First attempts to corroborate the Cuban historian's story yesterday were only partly successful. Shlomo Hillel, former Knesset speaker, and former minister Mordechai Ben Porat, who headed the operations to bring Iraq's Jews to Israel in the '50s, both said yesterday they did not know of a Cuban airline's involvement in them. For this reason the Cubans could not have flown most of Iraq's Jews to Israel, they said.

Ben Porat said however that the American companies that did take part in the operation employed pilots from various states, including Cuba.