In an urgent new effort to save hundreds of thousands of lives in northern Ethiopia, the United States is putting fresh pressure on the Ethiopian government to allow ``safe passage'' of specially marked food relief trucks into rebel-held areas. The new pressure was made public during an interview with the Monitor by the head of the US foreign aid agency, M. Peter McPherson, whose Agency for International Development is spending more than $1 billion on emergency aid to Africa as a whole this fiscal year.
It has already brought a switch in public attitude from one of the largest private US relief agencies, Catholic Relief Service. After being told of Mr. McPherson's remarks, CRS senior vice-president Robert J. McCloskey publicly endorsed them.
Other private agencies asked for comment saw this as significant, since CRS has been criticized by some agencies in the past for working only in government-held areas and for not speaking out about conditions in northern Ethiopia for fear of offending the Marxist-military government in Addis Ababa.
These agencies reacted in a variety of ways to the new US effort for access to rebel-held areas.
Some were publicly in favor, such as CRS, Grassroots International in Cambridge, Mass., Lutheran World Relief in New York, and a ``Committee for Safe Passage'' set up last December by predominantly Roman Catholic relief groups.
Others, however, were more cautious, such as World Vision, a Protestant group very active in government areas. But World Vision has reportedly been moving in private to persuade Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and rebel groups to agree on some kind of ``safe passage'' plan.
Meanwhile, many Democrats in the House of Representatives agree with McPherson's call, although Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, said he doubted that Mr. Mengistu would heed what had been said so far.
``It's an issue of sovereignty,'' Mr. Leland said. ``It's the same as in Nigeria when the government froze out all outside efforts to feed the Biafrans. My own plan is for the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed into northern Ethiopia from the south.
``I want to see a conference between the US, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Ethiopia to arrange it. I've talked to Fidel Castro, who is in favor. The Cubans have people in Ethiopia and can talk to the Russians. . . .''
However, there is no evidence that the Mengistu government is impressed by public or private pressure. It insists that it controls ``all'' of Ethiopia and that there is nowhere that food supplies cannot be sent.
``Mengistu won't listen,'' said a source close to the African subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ``until the US has some credibility with him, unless we say, `Look, we want to improve political relations. Here's what we might do -- and we want you, in part, to let more food go into the north.' ''
House Democrats were disappointed that promising efforts to improve relations fizzled out in 1984 after Secretary of State George Shultz met Ethiopian Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde in December 1983.
All US development (i.e. long-term) economic aid to the Ethiopian government is banned by Congress because US property was expropriated without compensation by Mengistu when he seized power in 1974.
There have been recent reports of some behind-the-scenes progress toward solving this issue, but nothing definite has emerged. Meanwhile, Ethiopia takes enormous amounts of arms aid from Moscow while depending on the West for food to feed up to 10 million people.
McPherson first suggested ``safe passage'' a few weeks ago. But he is now so concerned that ``hundreds of thousands of extra people will die'' that he used his Monitor interview to speak out in even stronger terms about the fate of Eritreans and Tigreans in what is seen here as the worst-affected drought region in Africa.
He spoke out after the Addis Ababa government seized 6,000 metric tons of grain destined for Eritrea and Tigre from an Australian merchant ship, the Golden Venture, which called at the port of Assab en route to Port Sudan. Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden has just said in Canberra that 5,500 tons of the grain have been distributed to government-controlled areas. The Australians have lodged a formal protest in the Ethiopian capital.
The US wants, in effect, many more Western governments and private aid agencies to speak up in favor of ``safe passage.''
Already Grassroots International, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), and the British private agency War on Want send food into the north by truck from Port Sudan. The US quietly provides food for this effort -- 11,513 metric tons shipped since Oct. 1 last year with another 42,713 tons to come -- but McPherson doesn't believe this pipeline can do enough on its own.
Western aid officials, public and private, agree that large areas of Eritrea and Tigre provinces are in fact controlled by the guerrilla liberation movements, and that only a trickle of food and other aid is getting through.
LWR has bought 20 extra 10-ton diesel trucks in recent weeks to add to its existing fleet of 110, according to a spokesman in New York. It hopes to buy about 40 more, and to extract another 23,000 tons of grain from the US Agency for International Development, which has felt until now that LWR lacked the trucks to move more than the amount of grain already allocated.
McPherson said that ``2 or 3 million'' people are without adequate food in non-government-controlled areas.
``My judgment is,'' he said, ``that not enough food can be brought across the Sudanese border. . . . It will be necessary to have something like `safe passage' for marked food vehicles, like the `safe passage' that exists in many parts of the world for properly marked Red Cross vehicles.''
All dissident groups, as well as the Addis Ababa government, would need to agree to this ``safe passage,'' he said. He distinguished between ``safe passage'' and a so-called ``food truce,'' which Addis Ababa rejects on the grounds that it implies recognition of rebel groups.
For their part, the dissident Eritrean Popular Liberation Front and its Tigrean counterpart have broadcast promises to allow government food vehicles to pass through their territory safely. Western diplomats are unsure how firm these offers are.
``The US is not interested in the internal politics of the country,'' McPherson emphasized. ``We are interested in delivering food to those who are starving. Unless we are able to work something out for `safe passage,' hundreds of thousands of additional people will die. . . . We will never know how many. We don't know exactly how many people live in the north. Many will die far from the camps. . . .''
CRS supervises the distribution of millions of dollars worth of US government aid within government-controlled Ethiopia. The US uses CRS for this supervisory role in the absence of cordial relations between the Reagan administration and pro-Soviet Mengistu.
The organization says it feeds 600,000 people in Eritrea and Tigre. Although it works from government-controlled camps, it says that an unspecified number of people come in from rebel areas.
CRS vice-president Robert J. McCloskey, a former US ambassador to Greece, Cyprus, and the Netherlands, said that ``food should be made available to the northern areas from inside Ethiopia. We have told the Ethiopian government privately within the last two months that we are troubled by the numbers of people not being reached in the north. . . . We are also concerned about the government's resettlement program from north to south.''
Under this program, the Addis government wants to move up to 1 million people in the next six months, partly in aircraft provided by the Soviet Union. McPherson has criticized the move as designed to weaken rebel groups in the north.
According to Dan Connell, executive director of Grassroots International, opposition groups control ``up to 80 percent'' of Eritrea, Tigre, Wollo, and Gondar provinces. Northerners, he said, preferred to walk for four to eight weeks to reach the Sudan rather than walk three hours to government-run camps in Ethiopia.
``Fear of forced resettlement to southern Ethiopia . . . triggered a massive outflow towards Sudan, with entire villages setting out on foot,'' he said. ``The amount of aid reaching rebel areas is less than 5 percent of the amounts reaching government-run feeding stations. . . .
``There is simply no longer any excuse to stay quiet.''
Robert Ainsworth, vice-president of the aid agency World Vision, agreed with McPherson that hundreds of thousands would die in northern Ethiopia unless more aid got through. No long-term solution was possible without a peaceful settlement, he said. He agreed that his and other agencies felt ``frustration'' at not being able to reach more in the north.
World Vision has allocated $50 million to Ethiopia since last Oct. 1. It has feeding centers in 70 places, and carries supplies in its own twin-engined light aircraft.
``I've been in Israel and seen the Holocaust memorial which was set up so that such events would never happen again,'' Mr. Ainsworth said by telephone from his headquarters in Pasadena, Calif.
``But it is happening again. There's a form of holocaust in Ethiopia today, in Africa today, because of the famine. . . .''