UN in Urgent Effort to Get Food to Sudan

UNITED NATIONS relief officials are this week shuttling between Ethiopia and Sudan in hopes of working out a plan to get desperately needed relief supplies into southern Sudan. The UN officials are trying to hammer out an agreement between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) on practical measures to establish ``corridors of tranquillity'' in war-torn areas of Sudan, US officials say.

The SPLA, which has offices in the Ethiopian capital and bases in that country, is skeptical that a broad truce can be worked out, informed US officials say. It has told US and UN officials that Sudan's government would use the proposed ``period of tranquillity'' to reinforce its forces in the south and that there is not enough time to negotiate a general cease-fire.

But the rebels have agreed to try to identify areas where fighting can be stopped, and to work out protocols to let food into areas where war-caused famine threatens the populace.

International relief officials want to have the bulk of relief supplies in place by May, before rains make further deliveries impossible. Even if agreement is reached quickly, US relief officials are skeptical that they can get all of the supplies in place during the next six weeks. ``At the height of the Ethiopian relief effort, we were moving about 70 million tons a month, but this time the UN is trying to preposition 170 million tons,'' a senior US official says.

That, the official adds, only underlines the urgent need for a rapid agreement between Khartoum and the SPLA. ``We can't wait for peace. If it is two months or four months away, that's too late. Both sides will lose their people if they don't move now.''

US officials are cautiously optimistic. Sudan's government last week promised to meet almost all requests from international donors for free access and support. The question remains, officials and private specialists say, if the government will and can deliver on its word, especially given political instability in Khartoum.

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