NAIROBI, Kenya — Rebels in Ethiopia destroyed a convoy loaded with food for starving people in Tigre province and killed a driver, relief workers said Sunday.
They said the rebels burned at least 16 trucks donated by the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services and Band Aid, a British-based organization through which pop music celebrities and their fans sent millions of dollars to help victims of Africa's vast 1984-85 drought and famine.
Shocked aid workers in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, ordered an immediate halt in all plans for trucking emergency food to Tigre and Eritrea provinces, where the rains failed again this year, threatening many thousands of people with famine.
Military Escorts Targeted
The Eritrean Popular Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the attack. In a radio broadcast monitored in Nairobi, it said that its guerrillas destroyed 34 vehicles after driving off their Ethiopian military escorts along the Asmara-Adigrat road. The attack was aimed at dispersing the escorts, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Relief officials said the rebels also shot and killed a driver in the attack, which occurred Friday about 30 miles from Asmara, and destroyed nearly 450 tons of wheat, enough to feed 45,000 people for a month. The wheat was a gift from the U.N. World Food Program and the U.S. government.
David Morton, director of operations for the World Food Program in Ethiopia, and other relief officials contacted Sunday in Addis Ababa denied that the convoy was escorted by the Ethiopian military.
"If the rebels were going for a military target, why did they burn the trucks and the food?" Morton said.
Ethiopia's Marxist regime made no statement on the ambush. It does not normally comment on guerrilla attacks.
Use of Trucks Vital
Trucks are the only practical way of moving supplies to Tigre and Eritrea. The railway to Asmara has been out of operation for years after repeated rebel attacks. Transporting the supplies by air costs more than double the $140-per-ton required for truck delivery, according to Morton.
Roads out of Asmara are frequently under rebel attack, but aid convoys have not previously been targeted.
The raid came at a time when the United Nations and Western donors are attempting to rush emergency food aid into Ethiopia, which in September requested nearly 1 million tons of aid.
Relief agencies have warned that if large amounts of food aid do not reach distribution centers in Eritrea and Tigre by December, there will be a mass migration of destitute people into makeshift camps. It was in similar camps in 1984 and 1985 that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died, primarily from infectious diseases.
The stricken convoy is the latest victim of Africa's longest-running civil war, now more than 25 years old, in which several Eritrean guerrilla groups are fighting for self-determination.