ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Heavy fighting between government and rebel forces has all but destroyed a Red Sea port crucial to the famine-relief effort in northern Ethiopia, aid officials and diplomats here believe.
The result is that more than 2 million people in that region may face starvation this year, even if peace quickly returns--itself an unlikely prospect. The toll could approach that of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, when up to a million people starved to death.
"There's a growing feeling that by now it's impossible to avoid a lot of deaths," says Timothy Painter, the U.N. emergency coordinator in Ethiopia. "And we're probably unable to avoid the movement of large numbers of people (in search of food)--itself a disaster. There's a probability that many hundreds of thousands of people will starve this year."
The key to the fighting and the relief program is the port of Massawa, the supply depot for all of government-held Eritrea.
On Feb. 8, the separatist Eritrean People's Liberation Front ended a two-year cease-fire by launching a major offensive against the port, which is on two islands connected to the mainland by a causeway.
The EPLF, which for three decades has been fighting for Eritrean independence, announced two days later that it had taken the port. The Ethiopian government has still not acknowledged that, but foreign diplomats and officials here believe the port is indeed in EPLF hands.
Military sources say fighting was intense in the port, which was subjected to heavy government bombardment. Although no figures are available, heavy casualties are thought to have occurred on both sides, and among civilians in the city.
Quays, offloading equipment, storage sheds and the causeway may have been heavily damaged. But among the most important losses is nearly 50,000 tons of relief food stored under tarpaulins in the port, in some cases less than 1,000 yards from the water.
Relief agencies believe much of the food was destroyed in the battle, and what remained has probably been seized by the EPLF to feed its troops.
The offensive has halted food distribution to the famine area, where relief authorities had said 700,000 tons would be needed this year to feed as many as 4 million people.
In the past, food could be landed at Massawa and trucked a relatively short distance to the Eritrean capital of Asmara. From there it could easily be sent to dozens of distribution points throughout Eritrea and Tigre, the two provinces in which crop failures and thus famine are concentrated this year.
Because Massawa was so frequently used by famine relief officials over the last few years, it has developed into a model of emergency logistics, with experienced personnel and well-maintained equipment.
The closing of the port has forced aid agencies to consider two unpalatable alternatives: to transport food by costly and inefficient airlift, or to truck it over a much longer land route on roads so deep into a war zone that their condition is unknown.
On political and military levels, the EPLF offensive is the latest and by far most serious crisis faced by the regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam in 12 months of unalloyed disaster.
In that time, Ethiopia's 15-year-old Marxist government has faced a string of military defeats that brought rebels of the Tigre People's Liberation Front to within 200 miles of the capital, a coup attempt in May and severe drought and famine in the Eritrea and Tigre.
Meanwhile, the government's most reliable ally, the Soviet Union, has signaled its reluctance to continue backing the war against the northern rebels, and has pressured Mengistu to seek peace.
In the latest fighting, diplomatic sources say, the Soviets have refused to use their locally based fleet of military planes to help the government ferry troops, fuel and materiel to the north in relief of the 2nd Army.
Meanwhile, the Soviets have been providing the most pessimistic forecast of the army's future, telling other missions in the capital that the 2nd Army probably cannot last for two more weeks of fighting.
The resumption of fighting is particularly discouraging because until last month's rebel offensive began, relief agencies believed they had the famine situation well under control.
About 100,000 tons of grain had already arrived in Massawa and had begun moving inland. Some was warehoused on the border between Eritrea and Tigre, poised for shipment south.
Western donors had committed themselves to shipping 700,000 tons of food through Massawa in the first seven months of this year.
To carry the food from the port to distribution points in Eritrea and Tigre, the World Food Program had doubled the size of its truck fleet to 62.
But now, movement of food toward the drought areas has stopped. Ten World Food Program trucks were trapped at Massawa when the fighting started, and probably commandeered or destroyed; the other 52 are immobilized in Asmara, the provincial capital, by lack of fuel.