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With summit conferences now being reviewed like Broadway openings, it's not surprising that Presidents Bush and Gorbachev find themselves faulted by pundits and pols for laying an egg in their efforts to move forward on Germany, Lithuania and arms control.

What is surprising, though, is how little credit the critics give them for an unprecedented superpower deal that can save the lives of between 100,000 and 1 million people, most of whom have never heard of either president.The potential victims, who may be snatched from death by starvation, have the misfortune to live in northern Ethiopia, scene of Africa's longest and perhaps cruelest war. The protagonists are the criminally brutal communist regime of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Eritrean people, who have been fighting for independence from Addis Ababa since 1962.

Mengistu is quite talented at using mass starvation of civilians as a military tactic and executing his senior officers whom he suspects, often rightly, of plotting against him. Unfortunately for Mengistu, his headless army loses most battles against the ragtag Eritreans despite its piles of modern Soviet weapons.

Lowering the dictator's chance of survival is a second rebellion in Tigre province, just south of Eritrea. Unlike the Eritreans who seek their own nation, the Tigrean guerrillas want to overthrow Mengistu and impose their own more rigid communist system on the country.

In February, the Eritreans captured the key Red Sea port of Massawa, through which United Nations and private food relief passed. Mengistu responded by bombing the city, interrupting food shipments to both government and rebel areas.

Enter Gorbachev. After pouring billions down the Ethiopian rathole, he concluded that Mengistu could never win the war. He has threatened to cut the colonel's arms supplies next year and, at the summit, accepted a humanitarian bargain from Bush.

The United States will furnish rice and sorghum, and Moscow will use its AN-24 transport planes in Ethiopia to fly the food to famine areas. That will be a military setback for Addis Ababa since the planes had been ferrying troops and weapons to battlefields.

In addition, Moscow has twisted Mengistu's arm to stop bombing Massawa and to allow food to move through the port. It also is trying to settle the war through UN talks, but the effort seems too late: The Eritreans are massing to seize Asmara, the provincial capital, which essentially will liberate their homeland.

The Bush-Gorbachev moves to shut down a bloody and senseless war should, but may not, serve as a model for ending other Third World conflicts that have outlived their Cold War rationales.