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Famine relief comes to a halt as fighting rages in north Ethiopia

NAIROBI, Kenya - Two rebel groups say they have inflicted heavy losses on Ethiopian government forces in battles that stopped famine relief to the drought-hit northern region. Ethiopia's Soviet-backed government made no comment on the civil war in the north Wednesday, but neighboring Sudan reported an influx of 25,000 refugees trying to escape the fighting.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which is fighting for the independence of Eritrea, a former Italian colony, launched a big offensive last week. The rebels said Tuesday night they had killed 600 soldiers in battles near the government-held town of Keren in Eritrea province on Sunday.

The announcement on the clandestine EPLF radio station, monitored by the British Broadcasting Corp., also said the rebels had captured the Red Sea port of Masawa. The government has made no comment.

The other main rebel movement in northern Ethiopia, the Tigray People's Liberation Front based in Tigray province, said Tuesday it killed 1,813 soldiers in battles in Wollo province on Friday and Saturday.

The TPLF is trying to overthrow President Mengistu Haile Mariam and install a broader-based government in Ethiopia.

The fighting has stopped all famine relief in drought-hit northern Ethiopia, where the United Nations says up to 4-million people face starvation.

Relief sources in Addis Ababa told Reuters in Nairobi by telephone the government ordered the Joint Relief Partnership, a consortium of church-based relief agencies, to suspend all food distribution in Eritrea after the EPLF launched its push.

The sources said ships carrying relief aid for Eritrea, which lost 80 percent of its crops in last year's drought, were being diverted from Masawa to Ethiopia's southern port of Asab. A Danish freighter carrying relief supplies for the Irish charity, Concern, came under fire from a gunboat near Masawa on Monday.

Relief agency representatives were to meet TPLF leaders in Khartoum this week to discuss mounting an across-the-lines food aid operation.