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Averting famine in Ethiopia gets tougher. Rebel attack on food convoy highlights need for uninterrupted aid

A recent rebel attack on a food convoy to northern Ethiopia could make it more difficult to avoid another famine in that country next year - if such attacks become the norm. Last Friday's attack, which destroyed 450 tons of grain, was unusual. Normally, rebels allow food supplies into their area, say United Nations and other relief-agency officials in Ethiopia.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) claims the convoy it destroyed was partially military, and that it will continue to attack convoys unless it is informed in advance of their movement into the area.

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The UN, which supplied most of the trucks in the convoy, strongly denies the charge that the convoy included military shipments. The UN operates in Ethiopia at the graces of the government and thus cannot establish contact with the rebels.

The attack destroyed 40 percent of the UN's long-haul vehicles in Ethiopia's Tigre and Eritrean provinces, according to some reports.

By their latest estimate, UN officials in Ethiopia say famine can be avoided next year, but only if:

There is no interference with food supplies.

Massive food relief for at least 6 million people continues through much of next year.

About $30 million for such things as 100 new trucks, spare parts for trucks already in Ethiopia, and port equipment, is provided quickly.

None of the three points are yet assured, according to UN officials. And last week's rebel attack suddenly has underlined the importance of unimpaired delivery of food once it reaches the country.

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``There was no military involvement at all'' in the relief convoy, said Michael Priestley, a UN official, in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. He was at the scene 24 hours after the attack, examined the rubble and questioned the convoy drivers.

The attack came ``at a very sensitive time'' because estimated food needs are on the rise, said Mr. Priestley, who coordinates UN response to those needs.

Other relief officials contacted in Addis and Nairobi - where some relief agencies maintain regional offices - are concerned that the attack will slow donations to Ethiopia.

``This is a real crucial thing,'' said Steve Reynolds, an official with World Vision's regional office here. World Vision is a major supplier of food relief to Ethiopia. ``People are going to say what's the use of sending food if it gets blown up.''

The Eritreans have been fighting the central government for independence for more than two decades. The region is one of the hardest hit by drought this year.

Hagos Ghebrehiwet, a spokesman of the EPLF offices in Washington, called the attack a ``good thing,'' and accused the Ethiopian government of ``camouflaging military reinforcements with relief convoys.''

In a telephone interview, Mr. Ghebrehiwet said: ``There were three trucks loaded with bombs and ammunition in the convoy,'' he said, adding: ``Unless something is worked out there can be problems later.''

An Ethiopian official contacted in Addis Ababa said his government had so far not made any official response to the accusation. But the government generally makes no acknowledgment of rebel statements.

Ethiopia currently estimates it needs about 950,000 metric tons of food relief. But, based on a recent assessment, the UN believes the nation will need more than that. So far, only about a fourth of the current need has been pledged, and there is about a five-month lag between a pledge and its delivery, said Priestly.

Although pledges are on the rise, he said, ``We're on a knife edge,'' just barely keeping up with the growing need. And further attacks on food convoys could make the difference between survival and death.

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