"Deeply moved" by the plight of Eritrean refugees, Vice President Bush today appealed to Ethiopia to open talks with Eritrean rebel leaders to facilitate food shipments to the long rebellious province.
Speaking at Kassala airport after a three-hour afternoon visit to the Eritrean refugee camp here, Bush asked Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam to "give a little" and "recognize there is a great tragedy" due to famine and fighting there.
"The world wants you to reach out" and help the starving, he said, noting he was within a few miles of the Ethiopian frontier, "but you cannot even get in there."
Before leaving Khartoum for Kassala, Bush held a private 50-minute meeting with President Jaafar Nimeri at the People's Palace. Later they were joined by aides for another 40 minutes.
But although Bush characterized the talks as "good" and bilateral Sudanese-U.S. ties as "very strong," a senior American official said the vice president and his host had touched on the suspension of more than $200 million in American economic support "only in the most general way." The official said the vice president "has not come to negotiate economic assistance" and that no "major announcement" on the suspended aid was expected during the Bush visit, which ends Thursday when he flies to Niger and then Mali.
The vice president, on a three-country visit to Sahel countries to stress Washington's goal of persuading other nations to match the massive American food aid to Africa, told an Eritrean petitioner here that the United States was concerned about the Ethiopians' "extraordinarily brutal" treatment of Eritreans.
"We want to help, said the bareheaded vice president, who was wearing a white guayabara shirt, "if there is some role we might play in solving all the political problems" mentioned in the Eritrean petition.
Later, a senior American official who requested anonymity said the vice president was speaking purely about the humanitarian aspects of aiding negotiations between Addis Ababa and the Eritreans. The Eritreans have fought for independence for 23 years, first against the late emperor Haile Selassie, then for the last decade against the Marxist Mengistu regime.
"I want to make abundantly clear that we continue, as we always have, to support the territorial integrity of Ethiopia," the official said.
In the past, the dominant Marxist Eritrean People's Liberation Front has accused the United States of aiding Haile Selassie first to federate, then to annex Eritrea. From the end of the 19th century to 1941, Eritrea was an Italian colony.
Greeted by many of the dusty camp's 66,000 residents, with clapping and ululating women, the vice president and Barbara Bush visited a Swiss Red Cross hospital and a feeding station for seriously undernourished children run by the International Rescue Committee and Llamba, both private American agencies.
Watching sickly children being weighed and measured before supplementary feeding of high-protein food, the vice president said, "When you see children on tiny legs and are told by these wonderful doctors that they have a fighting chance, it's not all gloom."
Only six weeks ago, Wad Sherife was the most perilous refugee camp in Sudan, with a daily death rate of 11 per 10,000 residents. At one point in mid-January, the camp ran out of food rations for four days and water was in short supply and on sale by extortionists.
But thanks to more regular sea shipments -- and airlifted rations and purchase of water tankers and rubber reservoirs supplied with emergency State Department funds -- life in the camp has improved measurably. The death rate is down to five per 10,000 a day.
Dr. Jean-Marie Tromme, head of the Swiss Red Cross medical team, told Bush, "There is enough food for the time being" but "it will take another two or three months before things are running smoothly."
By contrast, the refugee camp at Wad Kowli to the southeast is being phased out for lack of water and its 90,000 residents moved to other camps with better facilities.
At Kassala airport, 15 miles from here, the vice president watched the crew of a U.S. Air Force C141 unload a 66-ton cargo of high-protein food and other emergency supplies donated by Save the Children-United States, Llamba and the International Rescue Committee.
Accompanied throughout by the Rev. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Robert Macauley of Americares Foundation, whose organizations are flying in their own emergency aid, Bush stressed the shipment "was just the beginning because there are so many people in the American private sector whose hearts go out" to the drought victims.
Bush also reiterated an emerging U.S. preference -- shared by the Sudanese government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- for sending food into Eritrea and Tigre provinces, also largely under rebel control, rather than overburden the Sudan. This country, a quarter of whose 22 million inhabitants are also threatened by famine, has welcomed half a million refugees since last fall, with at least another 100,000 expected soon.
"The situation cries out for safe passage and safe delivery of food for Eritrea and Tigre," Bush said, "and let politics be put aside."
The suspended aid -- approximately half the U.S. total to Sudan -- covers both the last and the current fiscal years and was cut off to mark displeasure with the Sudan's refusal to implement promised economic and financial reforms. The senior official indicated that an administration decision about disbursing the suspended aid was still at least partly dependent on the outcome of continuing talks between Sudan and the International Monetary Fund.
Sudanese Finance Minister Abdel Rahman Wahab was in Washington last week for talks with IMF officials and has not returned to Khartoum