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Update/The African Famine

The crisis in the remote west of Sudan is so bad now that 2 million people are ``seriously at risk,'' the United Nations says. Across the border in Chad, another crisis is building, with an additional 2 million people facing starvation until fall harvests.

The United States and the UN are also concerned about Ethiopia. The Marxist government there is sending famine refugees back to their own lands to plant crops. A good idea in theory, the US says, but, despite rains, it's too late. All they can grow is vegetables.

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``That may be,'' says senior UN famine relief official Maurice Strong, ``but they can't grow anything in the camps.''

Here's what's being done in the worst-hit areas:


Sudan: US planned to start flying food in three helicopters Thursday from El Geneina in extreme western Sudan to villages. A civilian charter transport will bring fuel from Asmara in Ethiopia.

Helicopters to fly for 90 days. The US is providing radios to coordinate operations in Khartoum and Port Sudan; planning to upgrade rough airstrips in El Geneina, El Fasher, Nyala, and install night lighting.

European Community (Britain, Belgian, and West German Air Force transports) airlift to the west expanded from five planes to seven. Carrying up to 200 tons a day, still far short of minimum daily requirement of 1,200 tons. ``It's better than nothing, but too little, too late,'' says a senior UN official.

Mali: An Italian DC-8 began flying July 29 between Dakar, Senegal, and Bamako, Mali. An Italian C-130 takes grain onward to Gao and another flies to Timbuktu.

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Ethiopia: The international airlift with planes from US, Britain, West Germany, Sweden, the Soviet bloc, Libya, and elsewhere continues.


Mali: Heavy rains blocking roads. The UN World Food Program is urgently appealing for $440,000 to buy 10 trucks to deliver grain from Timbuktu to Gao and Mopti, hard-hit famine areas. To boost incentives to private truckers, donors raised grain haulage rates by 100 percent in June.

Niger: Shortage of trucks.

Chad: Only four-wheel-drive vehicles can use many flooded roads now.

Sudan: Giving 400 tons of fuel for private aid groups in far west. Sudanese Council of Ministers wants to take over private trucks to haul grain. World Food Program urges other, less drastic ways to preserve private initiative and is asking donors for more big trucks. Work will start soon to upgrade so-called ``northern route'' to the west from Omdurman.

Ethiopia: Private British agencies report with regret ``no real sign'' that the government is using its Soviet-supplied military trucks to haul grain backlogged in port of Assab on Red Sea.


Sudan: The notorious 900-mile Kosti-Nyala rail line is back in action spasmodically. A Dutch repair team reopened one section with flair: Instead of moving a derailed locomotive from bottom of gully, the team instead packed earth over it and laid new tracks on top.

But the line simply can't meet minimum daily needs for 2 million people in far west. Trucks and planes are needed as well. ``Despite all efforts, the amounts of food being moved are sadly not enough to carry people through to the next harvest,'' says Peter Newhouse of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). ``Crop prospects are good so far, but further suffering in months ahead appears inevitable.''

Horn of Africa and Sahel: Rains continue heavy. Farmers are pleased, but short of seeds.

In the 10 worst-hit countries grain deliveries are behind schedule, says the FAO. It is too late to fill food gaps that will occur between now and the end of the year. Even wider airlifts urgently needed, FAO officials argue.

The top UN man in Addis Ababa, Kurt Janssen, has been widely praised for sending UN observers to huge famine camp at Ibnat in western Ethiopia, to watch government sending home 70,000 people.

Forty thousand were ordered out at gunpoint in April, without seeds or tools. It might have happened again, but this time the UN presence persuaded the government to provide seeds, food, and hand tools.

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