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US officials warn of renewed famine in Ethiopia

Ethiopia once more faces the possibility of massive starvation, senior United States foreign aid officials say, unless the Ethiopian government and antigovernment rebels let relief supplies flow, and unless more aid commitments are made. Although food aid is arriving, it may not get to where it's needed in time, according to Julia Taft, director of the office of foreign disaster assistance at the US Agency for International Development (AID). She has just returned from a four-day visit to drought-stricken areas in Ethiopia. Four million to 6 million people could face starvation, she adds, which would be a disaster on the scale of the 1984-85 famine.

Food is already in short supply at a number of inland distribution sites that Ms. Taft visited, and thousands of destitute Ethiopians are beginning to migrate to them, as they did in the 1984-85 period. At one site, because of a lack of food, the refugees were receiving only a quarter of the normal ration, she says.

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Relief supplies promised by international donors should be sufficient to meet needs through early 1988, if they can be delivered, says Alexander Love, a counselor to AID.

But after that time there could be problems, he adds. Private voluntary organizations, such as CARE, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Food for the Hungry, and Save the Children Federation are strapped for money.

Further, Taft adds, there appears to be a ``lack of political will'' by the combatants in the 25-year-old civil war to provide safe passage for relief supplies. What is needed, she says, is international pressure on the government and the rebels.

An Oct. 23 attack on a relief convoy by the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) has practically frozen relief truck convoys to needy areas, Taft says. Though no other relief convoys have been attacked since, a military convoy with gasoline trucks was ambushed and a convoy of private trucks carrying commercial food was struck. As a result, the Ethiopian government has shut a main road in Eritrea, Taft says.

The EPLF rebels must have known the trucks it attacked were a relief convoy, Taft says. The trucks were clearly marked and there is no secrecy about departure times. There is no evidence, she says, that the convoy was carrying any military supplies, as the EPLF claimed, and it appears that the rebels did not even search the trucks before burning all 23.

The US and other international donors want the Soviet-backed Ethiopian government and the Eritrean rebels to leave the roads free for relief convoys, Taft says. These convoys do not seek armed protection, she says, only free passage.

In the meantime, international relief agencies, the US, and the Ethiopian government are moving to ensure there are emergency airlift capabilities, but these cannot deliver the 1.4 million tons of food that may be needed, Taft says. All the internationally supplied trucks will be required, as well as Ethiopia's private truck fleets, she adds.

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In the long term, Mr. Love says, agricultural programs by Ethiopia's Marxist government are contributing to a situation in which drought and starvation could become more frequent. AID officials say the promotion of state farms, which they say are inefficient, at the expense of aid to private farmers will increase Ethiopia's annual food deficit.

Even countries that are normally very forgiving donors, such as Sweden, agree that their aid is ``going down a rat hole'' unless agricultural policies are changed, according to a senior US diplomat.

US leverage on the Marxist government to change its policies is limited, he adds, because the two nations have long had poor bilateral relations. Disaster aid, however, continues because hungry children know no politics, he says.

Although the Ethiopian government's cooperation is better now than in 1984, there is much more that it could do, Taft says.

Ethiopia is very cooperative, says Walter Bollinger, AID's deputy assistant administrator for Africa, until one of its high priorities (such as fighting the rebels) is endangered by relief aid; then problems begin. This raises questions about the government's commitment to alleviating human suffering, he says.

The Ethiopian people remain very friendly toward the US, the diplomat adds, while the Soviets are isolated and disliked, despite their massive military aid to the government.

Ethiopia's government remains preoccupied, he says, with the threat of many active breakaway movements, like the EPLF, and has subordinated other needs to defeating those groups.

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