ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- International relief officials warned the new government yesterday that tens of thousands of people will die if food and medical delivery routes are not opened immediately.
Several thousand children may already be past saving, relief agency representatives told leaders of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a rebel group that first occupied this capital city Tuesday.
"There are 50,000 people on the brink of starvation" in the Ogaden province of eastern Ethiopia, said Tom Lavin, field director for the private relief agency CONCERN.
Mr. Lavin said 2,000 children in the region along the Somali border were in "severe condition." He said aid agencies needed to fly supplies in from Addis Ababa to set up an emergency medical treatment center for 500 children.
"We need to be there last week," Mr. Lavin said.
Timothy Painter, head of United Nations emergency operations in Ethiopia, said that if the airport in Addis Ababa was not opened immediately, "there will be children in the Ogaden who will die."
Aid-agency officials expressed their fears and needs to EPRDF leaders at the first open meeting of any kind with the former rebels since they captured Addis Ababa. About 500 representatives of aid agencies attended the meeting.
Tamrat Layne, EPRDF vice chairman, told the aid workers that after "maintaining peace and order" famine relief was the new government's top priority.
The EPRDF also reached agreement with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to reopen the crucial Red Sea port at Aseb, Mr. Tamrat said.
Emergency-aid officials seemed generally pleased with the EPRDF's response to a food emergency that may be more severe than the one in 1984-1985, when more than a million Ethiopians died.
"Let's hope it goes as smoothly as it should," said John Wiater, Ethiopian representative of Catholic Relief Services, largest relief organization in Ethiopia. "We have to give these people the benefit of the doubt."