After shaking off twin plagues of famine and drought, Africa is now bracing for an equally deadly pestilence -- swarms of locusts and grasshoppers that can devour enough food to feed tens of thousands of people.

Due to a coincidence of ecology not seen in decades, four major species of African locusts and feisty Senegalese grasshoppers are breeding, hatching and forming swarms -- each consisting of billions of insects -- and have already infested large expanses of southern Africa and the Sahara, and threaten to sweep across the Middle East into India.

U.S. officials said relief efforts are hampered by the continent's often tangled political conflicts. A civil war in Chad, an insurgency in southern Sudan and the long-running Eritrean conflict in Ethiopia have posed serious problems in coordinating locust control efforts in some of the most infested areas.

A single locust swarm can eat more than 80,000 metric tons of cereal crops in one day, according to U.S. government officials who are mounting a major relief effort. After the last deadly locust plague, which lasted from 1977 to 1979, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, based in Rome, estimated that a single swarm could devour in one day what 40,000 people eat in one year.

"Africa is about to be in the grips of the worst locust situation in 60 years," said M. Peter McPherson, director of the Agency for International Development (AID).

AID recently provided $1 million from its foreign disaster assistance budget to help eradicate the insects in Sudan, where swarms have been sighted in at least three areas in the northern part of the country east of the Nile. The European Economic Community and the Netherlands have provided $1 million each to the Sudanese effort.

McPherson said he expects that AID soon will provide funds for pesticides and spraying equipment to Chad and Botswana.