The U.S. government determined that "a disaster situation" existed in drought-afflicted northern Ethiopia on May 5, 1983, but waited five to six months to respond to emergency food requests from an American volunteer organization working there, according to a General Accounting Office report.

The report concluded that the delays resulted from "several policy concerns" about providing food aid to a Soviet-backed Marxist regime.

One of these concerns, the report said, was doubt about the ability of the Ethiopian government, or private voluntary organizations, to carry out an emergency relief program that would reach all famine victims, including those living in rebel-controlled areas of northern Ethiopia.

In addition, "The United States was also sensitive and cautious about committing large amounts of food assistance to a Marxist-governed country where detailed and accurate verification of real food needs could not be accomplished and where the possibility of food diversion existed," the congressional watchdog agency said.

"A continuing concern of AID [Agency for International Development] and the Department of State is whether donated food is used to support an Ethiopian government that is openly hostile to the United States," the GAO stated.

The 21-page report, prepared at the request of Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), contributes to the controversy over whether Western donors' response to the Ethiopian famine -- widely regarded as the worst such crisis in contemporary African history -- was inexcusably slow. Estimates of the death toll range from 200,000 to 300,000.

Despite official misgivings, the United States had committed $210 million in relief asssistance, including nearly 382,000 tons of food, as of March 7. This makes it the leading donor in Ethiopia.

The report said AID received four requests for emergency food aid during the 1983 fiscal year and seven the next from four private and international groups, primarily Catholic Relief Service (CRS).

"The initial requests for each of these fiscal years were submitted by CRS and required five and six months, respectively, to be approved," the GAO study said. This was "considerably longer" that the time normally required to process requests from private voluntary organizations, it stated.

The first request came in December 1982. But AID, the GAO said, had doubts about the relief service's ability to deliver and monitor the proposed food distribution in Makelle in northern Ethiopia and was worried about how it would be affected by the civil war there. In addition, AID wanted to establish a "balanced" food program aiding Ethiopians in both government- and rebel-controlled areas.

The study reviews a series of problems faced by AID and other Western donors in trying to determine how serious the drought and food shortage were becoming during both 1983 and 1984. These included a lack of accurate data, restraints on the travels of U.S. Embassy or relief officials into the affected areas, and the Ethiopian government's refusal to provide requested information.

Moreover, "the Ethiopian government's failure to import food during the past three years led many donors to believe the Ethiopian government might be profiting from the current famine by relying on donated foods instead of commercial purchases," the report said.

Many U.S. officials argued against the aid, saying that it allowed Ethiopia to save foreign exchange to import military and nonessential goods and concentrate its funds on the rebel war.

"This concern remains open and is frequently debated," the report said, "but the U.S. policy to feed hungry people is currently overriding that concern."