Food aid stymied as Ethiopia wars drag on

Prospects for an end to the 22-year-old secessionist conflict in Eritrea appear bleak. So do the possibilities for peace in other parts of northern Ethiopia, notably Tigre Province, where armed opposition groups reportedly are strengthening their challenge for autonomy against the Addis Ababa regime.

Compounded by severe drought in at least four provinces of this rugged highland and coastal desert region, the continued strife and lack of concerted international encouragement for a universally acceptable political solution only serve to accentuate one of Africa's longest and seemingly inextricable human predicaments.

''The region is caught up in an endless struggle producing endless victims,'' says an official at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Little appears to have changed in the overall situation since this correspondent last visited this part of the Horn of Africa in late 1981. Political intransigence among the Ethiopian government and the various separatist movements continues to prevent compromise, while international bodies such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) have not sought an end to the strife because of its policy of ''noninterference in the internal matters of independent nations.'' American church and lay leaders say their appeal last September to the UN Secretary-General to implement a cease-fire met no positive response.

Neither the government nor the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) has shown itself capable of forcing an armed solution. Yet both sides, who refuse to negotiate, seem determined to continue fighting.

Since 1977, the Ethiopians have launched no fewer than six major offensives. Early last year, more than 100,000 Cuban and Soviet-backed troops succeeded in taking strategic insurgent positions but failed to dislodge the EPLF from its mountain strongholds.

While admitting that the Ethiopians had managed to exploit ''certain weaknesses,'' the EPLF claims to have regained lost ground. But Addis appears more confident in its containment of the Eritrean problem. It ''can only be solved within the territorial integrity of Ethiopia,'' maintains Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde. ''Our unity is sacrosanct and we will not tolerate such threats. If necessary, we shall continue for ages, for centuries.''

Far more menacing to the Dergue government, however, is the reportef expansion of the Tigre People's Liberation Front, a carbon copy of the EPLF but which advocates regional autonomy rather than independence. Closer to the capital, the Tigreans have been hitting government targets with increasing frequency.

Perhaps most distressing of all, the continued warfare has done much to prevent proper distribution of relief to areas suffering from both war and drought. Furthermore, despite their expressed humanitarian concerns, both the central authorities in Addis Ababa and the opposition seek political advantage from international relief.

Ever since the first outbreaks of dissent in 1962, when the Haile Selassie regime in Addis Ababa formally annulled Eritrea's special federal status by annexing the territory as a province, hundreds of thousands of people fled the fighting either as refugees to neighboring Sudan or as displaced persons within Ethiopia itself.

According to international relief officials, the past three years of years of drought in Eritrea, Tigre, Wollo, and Gondar Provinces have provoked an emergency situation affecting at least 3 million people in the government and opposition-held areas. But only 1 in 3 victims actually gets assistance, they say.

''The rest are not being reached because of the fighting or simply the inaccessibility of the terrain,'' said a UN Development Program representative in Addis Ababa. The situation threatens to grow worse now that recent reports indicate the rains have failed in many areas.

Most of the present international aid is being channeled through the Ethiopian government. Rebel sources complain that the government is depleting the separatists of popular support by attracting inhabitants to the government areas by means of food and resettlement projects. And Ethiopian relief officials argue that the rebels are only prolonging the conflict by soliciting international support.

A small number of international humanitarian groups provide limited aid to Eritrea and Tigre via rebel organizations. Several groups operating officially in Ethiopia also furnish discreet assistance from the Sudan side, but most hesitate to do so openly for fear of blotting their records with the Addis government.

''Basically, working with the separatist movements is taboo for most agencies ,'' an American relief official says.

Nevertheless, Western relief groups working with the vebels point out that, despite appeals for urgent humanitarian assistance, only 4 percent of overall identified requirements in these areas are being met by foreign donors.

Claiming to control roughly 85 percent of the rural areas, rebel sources estimate that more than 600,000 Eritreans and 1.2 million Tigreans suffer from severe malnutrition. ''Permanent hunger is pervasive throughout the country.'' noted Fritz Eisenloeffel of Dutch Interchurch Aid.

''If donor countries and agencies don't react soon, we can expect a major disaster in the months ahead,'' warned Chris Carter of Grassroots International, a Boston-based relief organization.

Sudan, which is determined to prevent any massive influxes of refugees, has made it clear it would support any international relief efforts, whether official or private.

Growing number of relief organizations are seeking ways of efficiently furnishing emergency aid regardless of which side it is coming from - so long as it reaches affected civilian populations.

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