A representative of the Angolan government said yesterday the Luanda regime is reluctant to let U.S. officials ship food into rebel-held territory because of fear that weapons will be included in the supplies.

A senior official in the State Department's Africa bureau challenged the assertion and emphasized that the International Red Cross, not the U.S. government, would be in charge of the shipments. He said Angolan officials were well aware of the proposed arrangements.

"The fact is that we have been urging the Angolan government for many months to adopt procedures that would get food to people who are starving in areas they do not control," the official, Jeff Davidow, said. "They have refused to do this."

The Angola representative, Washington lawyer Robert B. Washington Jr., contended in a letter to members of Congress that Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos was committed to helping "all Angolans" facing starvation, but was apprehensive about shipments direct to rebel territory, especially in light of what he said were U.S. attempts to step up covert military assistance to Jonas Savimbi's rebel army (UNITA).

Washington's law firm represents the Angolan government here. Angola has no official presence in Washington and its ambassador to the United Nations is in Luanda for consultations.

U.S. officials said last week that at least 782,000 people in both UNITA and government-controlled areas of southern Angola face starvation. They said 250,000 are at "immediate risk," including 150,000 in UNITA-controlled areas adjacent to Namibia and Botswana.

The U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance had been planning to ship 15,000 to 25,000 tons of food through these two countries into UNITA territory, to feed people there for a year. But both Namibia and Botswana have said they will not allow any food to be trucked or airlifted through their countries unless the Angolan government formally assures them it has no objections.

U.S. officials said last week that the U.S. relief operation has been put on hold because of the Luanda regime's refusal.

Washington claimed that because of "alleged evidence" the United States has used humanitarian aid as a cover for covert arms shipments to the Sudan and Ethiopia, the dos Santos government wants to "verify" that food shipments to southern Angola contain no military supplies.

Davidow dismissed the "alleged evidence" with an expletive. He said any verification questions should be addressed to the Red Cross. He said the U.S. government has sent $100 million in humanitarian relief to Angolan-government-controlled areas in the last 10 years and "equity demands that we help" people now suffering in UNITA areas.