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Ethiopians shift focus to famine

With its capital operating in a near-normal atmosphere for the time being, Ethiopia's new government Friday began 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 transport of emergency food was stymied, and communication lines between the capital and remote famine districts were severed.

But the country's new rulers, 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 infamous 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 Herarge.

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

About 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 has arrived.

"What we expect from you," said Abay Tsehaye, an executive of the 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."

Among other things, front officials said that they had 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 fighting closed the port 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.

Relief workers say 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.

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

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

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.

Life in the capital, meanwhile, showed signs of returning to normal Friday after two days of demonstrations against the rebels and U.S. involvement in Tuesday's takeover. Traffic was back on the city's streets and businesses and shops were operating as usual.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.