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Ethiopian civil war continues to threaten delivery of famine relief

SENAFE, Ethiopia - The intensity of the Ethiopian civil war is seriously threatening efforts to deliver famine relief to peasants afflicted by a drought even more severe in some areas than during the catastrophic famine and mass starvation of 1984-85, Western officials say. Enough food has started to arrive in Ethiopia to stave off starvation on that order, the officials say.

But they are losing confidence that as each side in the conflict tries to deny the other food, the relief will reach the neediest.

Western officials in Addis Ababa say the government's relief arm, the Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, started distributing Western relief food to its armed militia before it made its first major distribution to civilians.

In Asmara, the provincial capital of Eritrea, the deputy administrator of the province, Yishak Tsgaye, said the militia was "given priority because there is no fixed salary or privileges."

It is the militiamen's duty to patrol their village in return for the food, Yishak said.

Because of dramatic rebel military victories in the last two years, only about 1-million of the more than 4-million affected peasants are in government areas, according to Western estimates.

Yet about four times more food has been pledged to the government side.

This lopsided delivery puts the onus on the Addis Ababa government to permit food to travel into rebel-held territory.

The United States gives food to the rebels - 50,000 tons so far compared with 115,000 tons for the government - but does not publicly acknowledge it.

Officials say they fear the government will cut back or halt humanitarian aid to its own side out of pique that the West in helping the rebels.

Relief officials have described satellite images of Eritrea, Tigre and Wollo, the parched Ethiopian provinces largely under rebel control.

The drought this time is more narrowly focused in area than in 1984-85 but is even more intense where it has hit.

In Eritrea, it is estimated 90 percent of the crop failed.