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.
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.
Libya, which had no diplomatic ties at all with Nimeiry, has provided money and arms for Garang's broadcasts and military activity.
According to reports received by diplomats here, Qaddafi has now announced that he is ending his support to Garang and advising him to sit down and talk with the government in Khartoum.
Some observers are distressed that General Swaraddahab is entering into close dealings with Qaddafi.
``The Sudanese are such nice and gentle people,'' said one observer. ``They just don't know how roughly Qaddafi plays the game, using embassies abroad to attack his supposed enemies as happened in London and elsewhere. . . .''
``Nimeiry kept the Libyans out. Now they are back in.''
Western diplomats here say the new government has assured them that security for Western embassies will be maintained after Tripoli opens its embassy. But some diplomats are far from reassured.
General Swaraddahab talked to this correspondent just before receiving Qaddafi's deputy, Abdel Salam Jalloud, to cement new diplomatic ties.
The general is playing a delicate balancing game.
On the one hand he wants Marxist Ethiopia and revolutionary Libya to end support for Garang. On the other he needs continued US food aid to feed more than 6 million Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees suffering from the famine.
He knows the US opposes closer ties with Qaddafi and wants more food to flow to Eritrea and Tigre.
US famine relief will reach 1.2 million tons of grain this year, both wheat and sorghum. Total US economic aid to Sudan this year is about $500 million.
He went out of his way to praise the US aid in the interview.
``I am keen to see friendly relations with the United States continue,'' he said. ``We would like to thank the people and government of the US for all their aid. . . . Our relations with Ethiopia and Libya will never be at the expense of relations with the US and other friendly countries.''
At the same time the general -- a small figure in green military uniform, graying hair, and enormous red shoulder-boards and collar tabs -- firmly linked new ties with Libya and Ethiopia to solving the Sudanese civil war.
``We have the question of the south,'' he said. ``Libya and Ethiopia have much to do with this question. Unless we come to terms with Ethiopia and Libya, solving this question of the south will be quite difficult.''
The general denied that the Nimeiry government, in which he was commander in chief of the armed forces and defense minister, made too many concessions to the US or that his government now needed to be more independent.
He did say that ``Sudan is a nonaligned country. We will abide by that. There is nothing that could deviate us. . . .'' This was as close as he came to saying that he was not about to improve relations with the Soviet Union.
He denied reports that he had offered a Cabinet post to rebel leader Garang. Westerners here later confirmed this, adding that it was Nimeiry, now in exile in Egypt, who had offered Garang a post -- second vice-president in charge of southern redevelopment. Garang refused.
``We are asking Garang to come and talk,'' Swaraddahab said. ``We cannot offer him anything until we know what he plans. There are no official talks with him at the moment. . . He should come forward and say what he wants. His aim was to see Nimeiry toppled. That has happened.''
Meanwhile, he had offered amnesty for all who had defected with Garang and rescinded a Nimeiry decree that had divided the south into three separate regions. A congress would be called ``soon'' to ``solve the problem of the south.''
The south had been given three posts in the interim Cabinet which would stay in office until elections were held in 12 months.
Observers said later that none of this would strike the south as new or as meeting its grievances head on. Southerners would object to new pressure on Garang from Libya and to any new pressure from Ethiopia, the observer said.