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Ethiopia shaken by rebel gains. Aid agencies told to leave war zones amid troop buildup

The Ethiopian government is in trouble - and not just because one-fifth of its population is in danger of starvation. Recent military setbacks against rebels in the north have forced the government to begin a national mobilization - stepping up the draft and calling back many discharged officers.

The setbacks have also apparently spurred Ethiopia to mend a decade-old rift with Somalia, thus freeing up thousands of troops operating in its southern regions for action in the north.

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The rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) claims to have killed or taken prisoner some 18,000 Ethiopian troops a few weeks ago in what even the government now acknowledges was a major loss. Yesterday the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam issued an order for all foreign aid agencies to withdraw immediately from operating in government-held areas of drought-ridden Tigre and Eritrea provinces.

The government says this measure is being taken to avoid ``security risks'' to personnel working in the war-torn region. But there is general agreement that, consistent with the mobilization, the aid agencies are being removed in preparation for a new military push to end the civil war, which has raged for almost three decades.

Stepped up fighting had already brought distribution of food relief to a virtual halt in Tigre and Eritrea, where some 3.5 million people, of an estimated 6.5 million in danger, face starvation.

If the expulsion order is not withdrawn, donor agencies may halt food shipments because they will not be able to verify that supplies are reaching the people. In that case, many of the drought victims in the north could starve, says James Cheek, charg'e d'affaires of the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital.

Mr. Cheeks notes, however, that in 1985, at the height of the last famine relief efforts in Ethiopia, the government made a similar order but backed down after donors decried it as unacceptable.

The pact with Somalia is the direct result of Ethiopia's major losses last month to Eritrean rebels, according to nongovernment American, British, and Sudanese analysts.

The accord frees thousands of Ethiopian troops for battle in the north, says Christopher Clapham, an Ethiopian specialist at the University of Lancaster, in England.

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Talks with Somalia had been under way for a couple of years. But the recent rebel gains spurred Ethiopia into ``giving way'' on several sticking points, he said. Ethiopia had hoped to get Somalia to give up its claim to the disputed Ogaden area in Ethiopia. But Somalia succeeded in postponing this issue until later talks.

According to the foreign analysts, the military losses could also strengthen the hand of people within the military and the government that have criticized official policies and are pushing for economic reforms.

Morale in the Ethiopian Army appears to have ``collapsed'' in the face of a series of defeats, says a US scholar on Ethiopia who was recently in that country. The Army is widely considered a mainstay of support for Colonel Mengistu's Soviet-backed government.

Furthermore, discontent extends to Ethiopian officials and civilians, says this scholar who requested anonymity. ``There's more open dissatisfaction being expressed than there has been by Ethiopians for a long time.''

Both the West and the Soviets have criticized Ethiopia's agricultural policies as largely responsible for the nation's repeated famines. Although recently there have been some moves to make changes, the policies put too much attention on collective activities and do not give individual farmers incentives to produce more, say critics.

``The more the government suffers military losses, the harder it will be for Mengistu to hold out against criticism of the agricultural policies'' by some of his own officials, says John Cohen, a fellow from the Harvard Institute of International Development, currently working in Kenya.

And, ``Military intellectual opposition will be emboldened by increasing economic complaints from within the government'' - and vice versa, says another US specialist on Ethiopia who asked not to be named. Military defeats could, he adds, ``possibly,'' though ``not probably'' lead to ``active opposition within the Army.''

Mengistu ``toughed it out before'' in the face of setbacks, notes the first anonymous US scholar quoted. But in the face of setbacks, despite ``a lot of people in the regime that would like to see economic change,'' such change may come ``very grudgingly and very slowly.''

Two things that could pull the rug out from under Mengistu's efforts for a military victory would be a united rebel front or Soviet refusal to continue bankrolling his Army. Analysts see no signs that the Soviets will back off. But reports yesterday said the two main rebel groups are considering resumption of cooperation.

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