The Marxist government of Ethiopia has illuminated with stark clarity where its priorities lie in the battle against mass famine. By impounding a 6,000-ton food shipment from Australia that had been intended for the needy in rebel-held areas, it shows that it is concerned less with saving the Ethiopian people than with holding itself in power. This will come as no revelation to those who have followed the course of Ethiopia's revolution, but it is a stunning and shameful event all the same.

As it happened, a ship carrying Australian food first unloaded some of its cargo at an Ethiopian port and then prepared to move on to a port in neighboring Sudan. There it was to unload food provided by Australian voluntary agencies for transshipment to Ethiopian famine victims who live under the control of the Eritrean and Tigre liberation fronts. But while the ship was still in port in Ethiopia, its remaining cargo was seized.

The Ethiopian government, attempting to justify the seizure, suggests that the Australian action amounts to infringement of Ethiopia's sovereignty and interference in its internal affairs. That is a strange and farfetched construction to put upon an effort to feed a group of Ethiopians whose government is trying to starve them into submission. It is bad enough that the regime conducts a heartless policy against its own citizens. It is intolerable that it should attempt to make a foreign party, one acting out of humanitarian considerations, its accomplice in what comes close to being the practice of calculated genocide.

In fact, foreigners are interfering massively in Ethiopia's internal affairs -- but chiefly to the benefit of the Mengistu government. Its Soviet patrons, having made a rich contribution to Ethiopia's misery, have encouraged it to rattle the tin cup elsewhere. The regime is being kept afloat and spared the worst effects of its own bad policy choices and its own political errors by food and development aid from noncommunist sources. That means most of the aid is coming from countries or organizations that have not the slightest sympathy for the regime -- quite the contrary -- but which are prepared to overlook its flaws and concentrate on the overwhelming human need.

For the Ethiopian government to enforce a cruel political standard on the distribution of lifesaving food, while the people who are sustaining it have suspended political judgment of their own, is a vile inconsistency. Why would any donor want to ship further aid to a government that acts in that way?