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Eritrean Ports Agree to Channel Food Aid to Ethiopia - 2002-11-15

The Eritrean government has announced that it will allow its ports to be used to channel food aid to millions of hungry people in neighboring Ethiopia, despite the tensions between the two countries. Aid agencies are waiting to hear whether the Ethiopian government will accept the offer.

Eritrea says it has decided to assist famine victims in Ethiopia by letting food aid pass through its Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa. The Eritrean foreign ministry said Eritrea has no desire to penalize destitute people in Ethiopia for what it said were the wrongs done by their government.

Two years after their border war ended, there is still immense hostility between the two Horn of Africa neighbors. But the threat of famine is beginning to overshadow that. Both countries are in the grip of a terrible drought, with millions facing starvation.

Earlier this week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned that the current food crisis in his country could be worse than the 1984 famine that killed nearly one million people in Ethiopia.

The international response has been limited. At the United Nations World Food Program office in Ethiopia, Wagdi Othman says there is real concern at the failure of donor countries to respond to this looming crisis.

"So far, we are asking for at least 300,000 metric tons of food for the first three months of next year. And for the moment, less than 10 percent of that food has been pledged by donors," he said. "We really need contributions to come forward. A timely response from donors is important and will be key to avoid a lot of human suffering in Ethiopia."

Aid agencies say some 14 million Ethiopians could be in need of food aid by early next year. But this is just one of the many food crises facing the African continent. The drought in relatively affluent southern Africa seems to be attracting more international interest.

Mr. Othman of the World Food Program emphasizes that the shortening cycle of drought in Ethiopia is making it harder and harder for its impoverished people to cope.

It is just three years since Ethiopia's last drought. At that time, Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war. The United Nations complained that the inability to use Eritrean ports made aid delivery a logistical nightmare. Shipping food via Djibouti was extremely slow and expensive.

But when Eritrea finally offered use of its port facilities, Ethiopia dismissed it as a gimmick. Aid agencies are waiting to hear what Ethiopia's response will be this time.