New Ethiopia Turns to Old Problem--Famine : Africa: With relative calm after government's collapse, the new rulers make relief a top priority.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its capital operating in a near-normal atmosphere for the time being, Ethiopia's new government began Friday to turn its attention to the country's most dire problem--the famine menacing as many as 7 million of its citizens and refugees.

Relief operations here all but ceased as the country's military and government crisis climaxed with the flight of longtime dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam on May 21 and the subsequent collapse of his Marxist government. Hundreds of foreign relief workers were evacuated, the movement of emergency food was stymied, and communication lines between the capital and remote famine districts were severed.

But the country's new rulers, the former rebels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, say they have made relief their top priority and intend to drop many of the formalities that have traditionally hampered emergency operations here.

The situation in many parts of the country is desperate. In some districts, crop reports suggest that the harvest will be the worst since the terrible 1984-85 famine here.

"I've not seen people dying like this before," said Scott Faiia, director of Care International for Ethiopia, after a visit to the southeastern province of Harerge.

The remnants of Ethiopia's large relief community packed the ballroom in a hotel here Friday to hear the Democratic Front detail the steps the new government has already taken to ease the movement of food and emergency supplies into the country.

The former rebels also appealed for the agencies to resume their work. Approximately 1 million tons of emergency food supplies will be needed this year in Ethiopia. Famine relief agencies say that so far only 255,000 tons have arrived in the country.

"What we expect from you," said Abay Tsehaye, an executive of the Democratic Front, "is the immediate resumption of your relief activities. All agencies working in Ethiopia are hereby allowed and welcome to go on doing what they used to do immediately."

The audience of more than 200 relief workers and supervisors, anxious about having had to suspend their work for weeks, broke into applause.

Among other things, the Democratic Front officials said they have secured an agreement to reopen the key Red Sea port of Assab, taken last week by Eritrean rebels who have established a separate provisional government in their province after having won a 30-year war in quest of independence.

The reopening is important because an estimated 40,000 tons of food have been stuck in Assab since the port was closed by fighting May 26. It is the principal entry point for relief supplies into Ethiopia.

But the government turned aside appeals for an immediate reopening of Addis Ababa International Airport, shut since Sunday when the rebel army first moved within artillery range of its runway, and other major airports. The airports might reopen early next week, said Tamrat Layne, the Democratic Front's vice chairman. But he said security concerns, including the chance that former government officials might flee or insurgents might enter by air, made it unlikely to happen earlier.

The airport closure is seriously hampering efforts to transport emergency supplies to regions such as the Ogaden, in southeastern Ethiopia near the Somalia border, where as many as 50,000 people are on the brink of starvation, including more than 2,000 children.

Tom Lavin, the local director of the Irish aid agency Concern, said his organization's plan to establish a field hospital to treat 500 children in the district had been stymied by its inability to move the supplies into the country. The need is urgent, he said. "We need to be there last week."

Relief workers here say that they and the new regime face massive problems jump-starting the relief effort. For one thing, the new government may have trouble establishing authority in outlying districts where most emergency relief is needed. Meanwhile, raiders "have taken advantage of the old government's breakdown," one aid official said.

In refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia, for instance, Somalian refugees began commandeering relief vehicles and taking them back to Somalia. That forced the cessation of water delivery to the arid plains occupied by about 250,000 refugees until armed escorts for the tanker trucks could be secured.

Simultaneously, non-Democratic Front rebels operating in Harerge, location of what may be Ethiopia's most severe drought, not long ago blew up a relief truck and killed its driver with a land mine, interrupting food delivery for four weeks.

In the same region two days ago, a food convoy returning to base was attacked, said Michael Ellis, the U.N. World Food Program's director for Ethiopia.

"Two trucks were stolen, one put out of action, and one staff member has gone missing," he said. "In the east, there is a potentially catastrophic situation with very bad nutritional status, and we need guaranteed security."

A worse calamity may have struck refugee camps in the west, where as many as 300,000 Sudanese are caught between their own country's government-supported raiders and traditionally hostile rebels of Ethiopia's Oromo Liberation Front, which has split with the Democratic Front.

Reports reaching Addis Ababa say the refugees have embarked on a large-scale migration back to southern Sudan after a series of Oromo rebel attacks on the huge camps of Itang and Fugnido.

But Cecil Kpenow, resident representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees here, said he has not been able to confirm the reports because all 400 of his staff members in that region were evacuated May 27 to the town of Jima, 250 miles away. "I have no access," he complained.

EPRDF officials have tried to assure the relief organizations that they can guarantee their field operations' security.

"There are some pockets (of opposition), but on the whole the country is under our control," Tamrat, the Democratic Front vice chairman, said after the relief meeting.

But security analysts here say that is manifestly untrue because there are many areas of the country where the rebel army never operated and has probably not yet reached. They questioned how much the Democratic Front can accomplish in remote regions where the chief problem is random banditry and where the former rebels have never had a significant presence.

"Obviously there are limits to what they can do now," said Timothy Painter, resident representative of the U.N. Development Program and the senior U.N. official in Ethiopia. "I don't think we will be able to lick the problem in the Ogaden right away."

For all that, relief officials say that, even if nothing else were to change, the end of the war in itself removes the chief obstacle to emergency relief.

"Without the war we will see a marked improvement in our ability to function," said John Wiater, director in Ethiopia for Catholic Relief Services, the largest relief agency operating in the country.

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