Time running out for Ethiopia's hungry. Convoy attacks spur search for ways to move food to embattled regions

Another massive famine in Ethiopia involving several million people can still be averted - maybe. That is the latest uncertain, yet hopeful, word from United Nations relief officials in Ethiopia.

But time is quickly running out, especially in the northern provinces where the Ethiopian government has been fighting a civil war with the Eritrean and Tigrean peoples for more than two decades. ``Over one million people in Tigre will shortly need food,'' says David Morton, a UN official in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. ``The numbers are building.''

UN officials estimate as many as six million Ethiopians face the risk of starvation next year if they do not get adequate outside relief. The UN has issued an emergency appeal for about $350 million for relief operations.

As food runs out in certain northern regions, some people have begun walking from their homes to food distribution points. But the second guerrilla attack on a truck convoy in three weeks has forced UN and other relief officials to begin weighing new options on how to get food out before it is too late.

Ever since distribution efforts began in late summer, there has been a shortage of trucks: UN estimates have indicated that as many as 300 more trucks were needed. That was before rebels of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front destroyed up to 32 Ethiopian trucks last Wednesday and 23 UN-flagged trucks, with 450 tons of relief food, last month.

The EPLF says that both convoys were at least partially military shipments. It is not known whether the convoy attacked last week was carrying food, though it may have been carrying food for commercial sale. The EPLF claims it included bombs and ammunition.

Airlifts are now being considered. But UN officials admit the job is too big for airlifts alone. A UN official in Ethiopia says that relief workers will press on with food distribution in the north despite the risk of rebel attacks. Ultimately, however, some kind of ``open roads for survival'' policy must be worked out to allow food relief through, says a spokesperson at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

The ICRC is in touch with the guerrillas, the Ethiopian government, and donors to try to facilitate an agreement on safe passage for food convoys. But Ethiopia's government has publicly refused to consider talks on the subject with either the Tigrean or Eritrean rebels.

The EPLF says it will attack food convoys carrying military ``elements'' but will let others through, provided it receives advance notice.

International donors insist that relief convoys have no military escorts or materials, and Michael Priestly, UN relief coordinator in Ethiopia, says the October convoy had none. But convoys of food or other supplies shipped by the Ethiopian government ``quite often'' have military escorts, says a UN official in Ethiopia.

Since the October attack, convoys without military escort have been getting through to some remote areas. But none have reached areas of Tigre, in the north, for some time.

So far, people who have left their farms looking for relief have returned home with supplies: no famine camps have been set up. ``But we're getting too close for comfort'' - to opening camps, says Mr. Morton.

Officials want to avoid camps. During Ethiopia's l984-85 famine, hundreds of thousands of people died in such camps - of starvation and of diseases contracted there.

Altogether, Ethiopia will need more than one million metric tons of international food relief in 1988. But so far, only enough to last the first three months of next year has been pledged, according to the UN's latest calculations. And it usually takes five months between the time food is pledged and the time it is actually delivered to hungry people, Morton says.

The UN has issued an urgent appeal for airplanes for massive airlifts into remote and contested areas. Large planes can take food to main distribution points. Then, smaller planes and trucks would take it to more remote areas.

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