After months of negotiations, the Agency for International Development says it is ready to begin a controversial program, backed by the Ethiopian government, to get food to famine-stricken people in northern Ethiopia.

Working with Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, both American private relief agencies, AID will fund several food distribution centers, to be opened soon in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, where about 2.3 million people are estimated to need food aid.

The program has the approval of the Ethiopian government, which, in a change of policy, has decided to begin working with AID to get food to Tigray and Eritrea. The government in Addis Ababa has been fighting rebels in the north for more than a decade and repeatedly has blocked efforts to get food to rebel-held areas, according to relief workers in Ethiopia.

Alex Rondos, disaster coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, who returned to Washington last week from a five-month tour of Ethiopia, said the situation is grim.

"There are many, many people in the north whose needs are not being met," he said.

Rondos said Catholic Relief Services has been distributing food in Eritrea since 1984 in a program not officially sanctioned by the Addis Ababa government. He estimated that his agency reaches about 150,000 Ethiopians there. Under the new program, which will include military escorts for food convoys, Catholic Relief Services plans "substantial expansion" of its feeding operation, Rondos said.

Catholic Relief Services will set up several new distribution centers in Eritrea in the next few days and up to about 15 in the next few weeks, Rondos said.

AID has approved 9,000 tons of food and 28 trucks for Catholic Relief Services. Catholic Relief Services has requested 25,000 tons of food to serve 200,000 persons, but AID has not yet approved the full amount.

"Ultimately, we'd like to do that, but we want to start out slowly and see how things go," said Brian Kline, AID's deputy director for East Africa.

World Vision official Dick Watson said his agency hopes to open two food centers in Tigray around Aug. 1. AID has approved 8,000 tons of food for World Vision, which also requested 25,000 tons of food. If the full amount is approved, World Vision will provide several months of dry food rations to about 300,000 famine victims, said Watson.

AID officials had hoped to start the new plan earlier. In late May, M. Peter McPherson, director of AID, told The Washington Post that the Ethiopian government appeared willing to work with AID to get food into the north and that feeding centers should open "very soon."

But negotiations moved slowly.

"We've run into a continual series of little problems," said one top AID official early this month. He asked that his name not be published.

The major problem, he said, has been the Ethiopian government's slow release of travel and work permits to relief workers, who need permits before they can operate in rebel-held territories.

The bureaucratic process has frustrated relief workers, who have said for months that the situation in the north is desperate. One report received by AID in March found that more than 1,500 persons a day were dying in Tigray in villages not located near a food distribution center. The situation since then reportedly has not improved.

While AID negotiates with the Ethiopian government over the logistics and amount of food aid to the north, a number of relief agencies have continued running cross-border feeding programs from Sudan into the rebel-held areas.

For about a year, AID has supported several private American agencies running cross-border programs. AID announced in April that it was planning to expand these operations, a proposal that may have been one reason the Ethiopian government became more cooperative, according to several AID officials.

The future of the cross-border operation, a delicate topic with both AID officials and the Ethiopian government, is unclear given continuing AID talks with Addis Ababa. A senior AID official in Sudan told United Press International early this month that AID was about to eliminate the cross-border program.

But AID official Kline denied this. He said, "I know there have been no changes, no cutbacks in our program."

But the cross-border program has been slowed by the summer rains in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to Fred Gregory of the American relief agency Mercy Corps International. He has just returned from a tour of Sudan.

Watson of World Vision said his agency will open centers in Inda Silase and Maychew.

Catholic Relief Services said it will open its feeding centers in a few days, probably in the areas of Keren and Areza.