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Ethiopian Airlift Pact Signals New Effort to End War : World hunger: U.S. officials say the Soviets want to disentangle themselves from a costly civil conflict.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unexpected U.S.-Soviet pledge to begin a joint airlift of food aid to hungry Ethiopians is symbolic of a major new effort by the two countries to work together in ending one of Africa’s longest running civil wars, Administration officials said Sunday.

The impromptu agreement for the Soviets to transport American food was reached after the Soviet Union persuaded Ethiopia, its one-time client, to make concessions that open the way for a new round of negotiations between the government and increasingly powerful Eritrean rebels.

U.S. officials said the new Soviet willingness to assist in resolving the bloody conflict is indicative of a broader effort to disentangle itself as cleanly as possible from what have become prohibitively costly alliances in the Third World.

“The Soviets don’t want to abandon Ethiopia but they need to exit gracefully,” one State Department official said. “That’s going to help the peace process.”

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The United States and the Soviet Union cooperated earlier this year in an agreement that led to independence for Namibia and to the phased withdrawal of Cuban troops from neighboring Angola. At the summit that ended Sunday, Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev also discussed possible joint efforts to end civil wars in Afghanistan and Cambodia but reached no formal agreements.

In their Camp David announcement Saturday night on Ethiopia, the superpowers disclosed that the Marxist government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam had agreed to permit U.N. observers to monitor any peace negotiations and to allow food shipments to resume through the northern port of Massawa.

These two steps had been listed by Eritrean rebels--one of two main opposition armies that have been waging war against government forces for nearly 30 years--as preconditions for the resumption of any talks.

Administration officials said the decision to follow up with a joint airlift was accepted by Soviet officials Saturday afternoon at the urging of Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who described it as a humanitarian gesture that would illustrate superpower concern.

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A State Department official said Sunday that the airlift would use Soviet planes already in Ethiopia to ferry American grain to Asmara, the capital of war-stricken Eritrea. Aid shipments to the region have been inadequate since February, when the port at Massawa was captured by Eritrean rebels. Relief workers then diverted their truck convoys to more arduous routes.

U.S. officials said the last-minute nature of the agreement made it impossible to predict when the airlift might begin. But one State Department official said the flights could carry a significant proportion of the 635,000 tons of food relief that workers say will be necessary this year to prevent starvation among an estimated 4 million peasants.

Relief is also expected to be accelerated by the government agreement to allow food to enter through the port of Massawa under a U.N.-sponsored effort.

While no starvation has yet been reported in Ethiopia this year, the onset of the rainy season this month threatens to bog down the long supply line from alternative ports farther to the south, isolating communities that depend on the imported food.

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The Soviet Union has provided more than $1 billion assistance to Ethiopia in the last decade, but it has virtually abandoned its client in the last 18 months, scaling back aid to a relative trickle.

Partly as a result, the 100,000-man Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and 70,000-strong Tigre People’s Liberation Front have now won control over much of northern Ethiopia and have fought fierce recent battles with government troops in efforts to expand their hold.

An attempt earlier this year by former President Jimmy Carter to mediate between Ethiopia and the Eritrean rebels failed to produce any progress toward a settlement.

But in the wake of the superpower-extracted concessions from Ethiopia, State Department officials said they expect a new round of talks to begin within weeks.

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