Ethiopia ousts agencies to take over relief effort. US officials doubt Eritrea will get supplies

``It looks like the Ethiopians have decided to solve the Eritrean problem by eliminating the Eritreans,'' says a senior American policymaker. He refers to the Ethiopian government's decision to stop foreign relief agencies from operating in its strife-torn northern provinces.

Separately, Alan Woods, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (AID) says: ``Two million needless deaths'' may result from the Ethiopian policy.

Mr. Woods and other relief specialists huddled late last week to discuss generating international pressure both on the Ethiopian government - to reverse its policy, and on rebel forces - to stop attacking international relief columns.

The objective, officials say, is to get a rapid resumption of international food distribution in the Tigre and Eritrea provinces before supplies run out. Though a one-month supply is in the port areas, the inland distribution network is virtually frozen. Some food stations reportedly have not been restocked for six weeks.

Relief officials are willing to take full responsibility for their own security if the Ethiopian government will let them back on the roads. The officials hope international pressure on the rebels will permit development of a neutral system of feeding the starving non-combatants.

Recent rebel gains in the northern provinces led Ethiopia's government to put defeating them ahead of feeding the local populace, US officials say. Foreign diplomats in Ethiopia have said that the Ethiopian government reportedly plans to distribute food in those provinces only to loyal followers and their families.

This is a particularly complex situation in which both sides in the 20-year-long civil war are ``equally thuggish,'' a well-placed US diplomat says. One former Soviet client, the Eritrean rebel front, is fighting a current Soviet client, the Ethiopian government.

``The Soviets have a special responsibility here,'' says a senior administration official, ``and we don't think they are exercising it. Secretary [of State George] Shultz pointed that out clearly to [Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze'' last Thursday in Geneva.

Though the US is pursuing its objective through multiple diplomatic channels, officials admit its direct leverage on the Ethiopian government and the rebels is small. Last week Woods urged the media to focus on this desperate situation, noting that ``world outrage over forced resettlement'' of starving villagers in 1984-85 led the Ethiopian government to change its policy.

An estimated 5 million to 7 million people face starvation in Ethiopia. About 40 percent of them are in Tigre and Eritrea. Relief efforts in the rest of the country are proceeding satisfactorily, but the program in the north has been plagued by the civil strife.

Over 100 relief trucks have been destroyed by rebel activity over the last six months as fighting has picked up. The private organizations, which deliver the US aid, have been battling Ethiopia's government to allow an ``open-roads policy'' whereby relief officials would travel without government security. But on April 6, Ethiopia ordered all expatriate relief officials to leave the two provinces and said it would assume control of the relief effort.

While adequate food supplies are reaching the ports, Woods says, the Ethiopians cannot manage the food distribution alone. If they take control of international relief trucks and supplies, he adds, they will lose their neutral status and whatever protection that gave them from rebel attack.

US supplies will continue to be shipped, Woods says, but will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The US does not want to send food that will rot on the docks or be distributed by political criteria rather than need, officials say. The US is the largest single aid donor, pledging 268,000 metric tons of grain at a total cost of $112 million.

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