London — The United States is about to launch a highly sensitive famine relief operation in northern Ethiopia. The specific focus of the operation will be Eritrea and Tigre, regions largely controlled by guerrilla secessionists. But whether food will actually reach guerrilla supporters remains doubtful.
Under a US ``northern initiative'' plan reluctantly accepted by the military-Marxist government in Addis Ababa three months ago, the Reagan administration is working to bring aid through private relief groups.
Catholic Relief Services of New York plans to begin moving 25,000 tons of grain by truck into the north and east of Eritrea Province in a month. The operation is expected to last nine months.
World Vision, a Protestant agency based in California, says it will move a projected 24,000 tons of cereals and edible oils into Tigre Province over a period of the next five months beginning Aug. 1.
Grain and trucks will be supplied by the US Agency for International Development (AID).
Catholic Relief Services estimates a budget of about $5 million. World Vision in Washington says it would pay $1.7 to $2 million in distribution. AID was expected to provide $1.4 million for trucks and operating costs.
Tigre and Eritrea contain a total of about 7 million people. About half live under guerrilla control, in arid, mountainous, thirsty, hungry areas among the hardest hit in all of Africa. Eritrean guerrillas have been fighting for the independence of Eritrea since Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony in 1962.
For many months the area has been the cause of verbal clashes between the pro-Soviet government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam and the Reagan administration.
AID administrator M. Peter MacPherson has accused chairman Mengistu of using the famine for political purposes by preventing food from reaching guerrilla-held areas. US relief efforts -- official and private -- have been confined to areas clearly under government control.
Now, according to Catholic Relief Services director for Africa, William Schaufele in New York, CRS trucks carrying US grain will travel to government-held centers through contested areas.
So will World Vision trucks, according to a WV spokesman in Washington.
Mengistu denies any political motives associated with food relief, and claims there is ``no area'' of Ethiopia he does not control. Western aid officials concur that this is not so. The Ethiopian government will try to block any overt US effort to provide food to guerrilla supporters. US officials, publicly silent, evidently hope that Catholic Relief Services and World Vision grain will find its way to the hungry on both sides.
Both groups have asked for security guarantees for their trucks. All trucks will operate from the port of Massawa via the city of Asmara. Catholic Relief Services trucks will go to the towns of Arresa, Keren, Agordat, and perhaps Barentu. World Vision trucks will go to Tigrean centers Endaselassie and Maychew.
Mr. Schaufele, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Poland, said, ``We have to be flexible in situations like these. We hope to start in three or four weeks.''
World Vision hopes to reach 300,000 people, its spokesman said.
WV, promised security by the Ethiopian government, says it has insisted that food be distributed freely. Yesterday the group's spokesman said the Ethiopian government was about to sign approval documents for the program.
Fighting in the region, sometimes intense, continues. On July 6 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front reportedly seized Barentu in western Eritrea.
Both AID and private agencies in London believe that the liberation front is still there. But Catholic Relief Services in New York says guerrilla forces may have moved out. If the liberation front is still in the town, CRS may not be able to use it as a relief center. The Eritreans prefer to receive aid from Port Sudan and from groups friendly to the their cause.
Scattered aid still crosses the Sudanese border, despite statements by the new government in Khartoum that such aid will be blocked.
Amounts have been curtailed, however, by rain and by an Ethiopian military offensive. Much will now depend on how the new grain is distributed, and whether some of it does filter through to Eritrean supporters.