The US tries to feed famine victims in rebel-held areas of Ethiopia

So many poor and hungry refugees from Ethiopia are pouring across the border into Sudan to find food that 130,000 have made the journey since October, and private agency officials in London predict that 350,000 more will cross by April 1. The refugees come from the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, which are largely held by rebel secessionist forces that have been fighting the Addis Ababa government for decades. The refugees dare not flee the famine by traveling south; they would be treated as prisoners of war there. So they go west into Sudan.

The Ethiopian government of Men-gistu Haile Mariam, according to aid officals here, does not permit Western food supplies into rebel-held areas, which contain almost seven million people.

It is increasingly clear to Western aid workers, both governmental and private, that a major task now is to get more food through the political barriers into northern Ethiopia, where rain has not fallen for almost four years.

While most Western food aid is given to the Ethiopian government, the US gives tacit support to private efforts to channel food through Port Sudan into rebel areas. Several US agencies and the British agency War on Want are involved.

After four years without rain, the northern provinces have been reduced to dust and stones. Whole villages have abandoned their farms, and walked until they have found government food centers.

The current death rate per day in the area is put by rebels and pro-rebel aid groups at about 1,500. Precise figures are impossible to find.

The Ethiopian government is extremely sensitive to any help given to people it considers its enemies.

The government charged last Friday that money raised in the West for famine relief ``is not reaching Ethiopia.'' The charge, made by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Goshu Woldein in a BBC interview in Addis Ababa, surprised aid officials, and caused them to speculate that the foreign minister was in fact complaining that too much relief was finding its way to rebel-held areas.

Addis Ababa recently criticized the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for allegedly giving too much aid to the refugees in Sudan, and too little to the starving in its own areas of Ethiopia. The government claims that, under pressure from the US, UNHCR has ``enticed'' people away from Ethiopia and helped guerrilla forces.

Mr. Goshu urged Westerners to send money directly to the Ethiopian government. This is not likely to happen, however, since the government is both military and Marxist in character.

Now the Ethiopian government says that it has improved distribution of Western aid by truck. It is also taking other steps, such as a plan to impose a ``famine tax'' on all Ethiopian nationals, including those who live abroad. Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam announced the plan Saturday.

Addis Ababa's sensitivity forces the US government, and some private agencies, to take a cautious line in public. So the Reagan administration, which has openly allocated 54,000 metric tons of food worth $26 million to Ethiopian refugees in Sudan since October, sends no food or supplies directly into northern Ethiopia.

Instead, it tries to help in two other ways:

In talks with the Mengistu government, the director of the Agency for International Development, M. Peter McPherson, has emphasized that official US food aid to Ethiopia should be made available to all areas of Ethiopia.

``We realize how unlikely it is that the Addis government will feed the people it is fighting,'' says one US official privately, ``but we make the point, and write it into agreements, to try to exert some pressure.''

Since Oct. 1, this official US aid to Ethiopia has reached 880,000 metric tons of cereals, worth $344 million. The administration is seeking an extra $235 million from Congress, which is likely to respond with twice that amount or more. It is also planning to divert to Ethiopia $176 million from other programs.

Behind the scenes, the US directly helps two private US agencies in Sudan, Lutheran World Relief and Mercy Corps International, to transport food and supplies into northern Ethiopia by road.

In recent months, these private agencies have had so few trucks that they have been able to carry only 1,000 tons of supplies a month into Tigre.

``We need more trucks,'' says James Firebraze, War on Want's program officer for the Horn of Africa. ``We have bought 65 to go into Tigre but they carry only 10 tons each. We've been getting in about 2,000 tons a month, and about 3,000 tons a month into Eritrea.''

The Reagan administration also sees politics behind the Addis Ababa plan to resettle as many as one million people from northern Ethiopia to more fertile southern regions. Reports reaching Washington indicate that the very old and the very young are being left behind, and that a key aim is to weaken secessionist forces.

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