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U.S. turns to Catholic agency for aid to Russia

While launching an international airlift of humanitarian aid to the former Soviet Union, U.S. officials have contracted with a Roman Catholic agency to begin shipping food into remote provinces of Russia in the Far East.

On Monday, U.S. military planes began flying tons of food and medical supplies to former Soviet republics. The airlift is part of an international effort to speed humanitarian relief to the republics.

At the same time, the United States has commissioned Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to begin a long-term relief operation in the Russian Far East, which faces a serious food shortage.

"If things continue as they are, this country is about a year away from famine in certain regions," said Alex Rondos, a spokesman for the agency. He was part of a team that traveled to Russian Far East in January to assess needs.

The $41-million operation, covering food and transportation costs, is expected to begin in mid-March and reach at least 500,000 people. The effort is expected to last through the winter of next year and possibly beyond.

The humanitarian effort will concentrate primarily on four Far East cities: Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Birobidzhan and Komsomolskondos. They are at the eastern edge ofRussia, which borders the Sea of Japan.

Rondos cited rising food prices, declining wages and the breakdown of food distribution channels as the chief causes of "pre-famine conditions" in the region.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has contracted with the Catholic agency, the nation's largest private relief organization, to distribute 30,000 tons of food during an initial six-month phase. The food includes non-fat dry milk, butter oil, infant formula, flour, rice and peas, which will go to orphanages, hospitals and schools.

The Agriculture Department's contract with the agency, for the initial six months, is the largest in a $165-million program of U.S. relief aid to the former Soviet Republics. The government has reached similar ar-rangements with other private relief agencies, including CARE.

The Catholic agency will mount the relief drive in a country where the system of food distribution, by nearly all accounts, has all but collapsed. Relief supplies and other food shipments are often stolen before reaching their destination.

To avoid the pitfalls, the agency plans to supervise the operation from the moment supplies arrive at Russian ports until the actual preparation of meals in kindergartens and other sites of distribution. In between, the agency intends to rent warehouses, hire security guards and set up its own trucking fleet to transport the aid.

"You can never eliminate the risk of diversion. The point is to minimize the risk to the greatest extent possible," said Rondos.

"These people aren't starving. What we want to do is catch them before they starve," said Rondos. At the same time, food shortages in the region have already triggered significantly higher rates of malnutrition and infectious diseases among children, he said.

The agency plans, after six months, to seek funding of a second phase of the operation that will feed 1-million people on a regular basis. "We see it going right into the summer of '93, and only then can we decide if the winter of '93 will be any better," said Rondos.