The United States is sending three military cargo helicopters to Sudan to distribute food in the remote western province of Darfur, where an estimated 2 million famine-stricken people are in need.

M. Peter McPherson, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), said yesterday that the Defense Department helicopters, each capable of lifting 10 tons, are needed because heavy rains have made many roads in Darfur impassable.

Western Sudan and northern Ethiopia are the worst drought- and famine-affected areas in black Africa, with world attention most recently riveted on the situation in Darfur. A transportation crisis has prevented emergency aid that is piling up in Port Sudan and the Sudanese capital of Khartoum from reaching starving people in Darfur.

The three U.S. military helicopters being sent to Darfur to disperse food from the provincial capital of Nyale to outlying areas will be there three months at a cost of $3 million, McPherson said.

The helicopters, to be piloted and maintained by Defense Department personnel, will join five C130 and two C160 transport aircraft the European Common Market has sent to help Sudan overcome delays in distributing food aid due to the confusion in its rail and road communications.

AID is also providing logistical support to help improve the performance of the European air bridge, which McPherson said had been hampered by a lack of communications, management personnel, runway lights and ground-handling capability.

He said the goal was for each plane to make three flights instead of the current one each day in order to get at least 500 tons of food into Darfur province daily to prevent "great starvation."

With three trips a day, the European-provided aircraft, which now transport about 120 tons a day, could meet most of that goal on their own.

Some food is getting through to Nyale by rail and road; the eventual objective is to move 1,300 to 1,500 tons a day to Darfur via road, rail and plane.