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World talks on African famine upstaged by Soviet transition

The conductor's baton came down, the drums rolled, the cymbals crashed -- and the silence was deafening. The first overall United Nations conference to help alleviate the African famine, designed to catch and refocus the world's attention, found that it had opened on the wrong day.

No sooner had delegates from more than 50 countries begun to gather in the cavernous corridors of the Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva than word flashed through the building like an electric current: ``Chernenko is dead.''

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``The conference is over at 10 a.m. [its opening time],'' one delegate remarked. Translation: Scores of reporters from around the world found their editors suddenly preoccupied not with North-South issues but with East-West.

The UN conference had to continue bereft of the world headlines for which its ``conductor'' -- UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar -- had hoped.

US Vice-President George Bush, who delivered a speech calling for quick solutions, coordinated commitments of aid, priority treatment for food ships, freer agricultural markets, and new research into seeds and rolling back the desert, was pursued by the press -- with questions about whether he would represent President Reagan at the Chernenko funeral.

Nonetheless, the moral and humanitarian issues raised here will confront mankind for many years to come. Here, in brief, are the highlights of the first day:

Mr. Bush softened his criticism of the military Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Addis Ababa. After meeting with Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde for two hours late Sunday, the Vice-President deleted from his speech Monday a call for a truce between the Addis government and ``its armed opponents'' in the north to allow food convoys to proceed to ``all in need.''

Instead, he said, ``All concerned must put aside politics to bring relief to all in need.'' He also eliminated a reference to a ``conspiracy of silence'' while about 2.5 million people starved in rebel-held areas in the north. He spoke only of the US not accepting ``silence.''

Why? Neither Ethiopian nor US officials would comment, but speculation was that the US had obtained some kind of concession from Addis to let more food aid through.

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Speaker after speaker, including the chairman of the Organization of African Unity, Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere, stressed that Africa needed long-term as well as short-term emergency aid.

No new money was pledged. But donors confirmed existing pledges, the European Community defended itself against past US criticism of giving too much too slowly, and an Italian aid minister confirmed that the Italian Parliament had just allocated almost $1 billion over 18 months for ``emergency aid and rehabilitation.''

Underground water supplies must be tapped in the drought-struck mid-north African Sahel region, where rivers carried 4.6 trillion cubic feet of water, but 123.6 trillion cubic feet remained to be exploited, according to Seyni Kountche, leader of Niger and head of the inter-state committee on drought control in the Sahel.

Hope for the future, speakers said, lay in the urgency of the need and in the generosity of individuals and governments so far. Help had come late, said Mr. Nyerere, but Western nations should be thanked for it, nonetheless. --3{et

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