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Sudan to block aid to famine victims in Ethiopia. No food to cross without Ethiopia's. OK, Sudan leader says in interview

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 1985

Khartoum, Sudan

In his most explicit statement so far on one of Africa's most sensitive political and relief controversies, the new leader of Sudan says his country will no longer allow food to be sent across the border into northern Ethiopia unless the Ethiopian government approves. Western aid agencies say this means that large numbers of people in the rebel-held Ethiopian provinces of Eritrea and Tigre could be deprived of food in the middle of the worst drought in living memory.

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Secessionists in both provinces are fighting a protracted civil war with the military, Marxist government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in Addis Ababa, which has been distributing relief aid in the north only to its supporters.

The new Sudanese leader, Gen. Abdel Rahman Swaraddahab, made his statement in an interview with the Monitor in the white People's Palace on the banks of the Blue Nile here in the Sudanese capital.

He would allow no food to cross into Ethiopia from Port Sudan in Western relief agency convoys ``unless approved by Addis Ababa,'' he said. ``We should abide by our bilateral relations with our neighbors and we should get the consent of the government there. . . . Ethiopia might think arms are being smuggled across the border with the food but this is not happening at all.''

Told that the effect of his policy might be to deprive Mengistu government opponents of food, the general replied, ``The Addis government might want to send aid through Addis itself.''

Western analysts contacted later were struck by the firm tone of the general's comment. ``It's new, very new,'' said one Westerner who has been dealing with high-level Sudanese officials for more than three years. ``If he follows through, many more people in northern Ethiopia could die.''

Once again analysts said politics was blocking the flow of food aid to Africa's hungry people.

The general's comments appeared to put an end to lingering Reagan administration hopes to boost the flow of food aid from Port Sudan on the Red Sea to Eritrea and Tigre in truck convoys organized by private agencies and largely financed by the United States.

Other factors are blocking aid: recent rains that have made roads impassible, and an Ethiopian military offensive in the north.

US officials here have scaled back US hopes for more aid, although some is still managing to get through.

Observers here attribute the general's statements to his new government's hope to strike a deal with Ethiopia. Sudan's deposed President, Jaafar Nimeiry, had very cool relations with Mengistu.

The deal is described by observers as: ``We'll stop feeding your guerrillas if you stop feeding ours.''

That is: We in Sudan will stop allowing food to go to Eritrea and Tigre if you in Addis Ababa will withdraw sanctuary and support for Col. John Garang.

Colonel Garang is leading a rebellion in the southern and predominantly Christian and animist part of Sudan from a base across the border in Gambela, Ethiopia.

The risk for Khartoum is that the West will see the proposed deal as inhumane -- and that less food for Eritrea and Tigre will simply force even more refugees to cross the border into Sudan. Clearly, however, the new Sudanese government thinks the risks are worth taking.

Westerners here say Garang leads about 6,000 troops. To this newspaper General Swaraddahab agreed that Garang had ``two or three battalions,'' or about 6,000 persons.

Mengistu allows Garang to move around Ethiopia and to broadcast into Sudan for one hour every afternoon. Garang uses socialist language to call for a restructured Sudanese government that would represent all regions instead of concentrating power in the hands of a northern, Muslim, Arab-descended elite.

General Swaraddahab wants Ethiopia to end this aid to Garang as part of a wider post-Nimeiry strategy to solve the Sudanese civil war.

In his Monitor interview he indicated that putting pressure on Garang was also behind another recent move -- opening up new diplomatic relations with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.