That's a very delicate question you are asking," said the Eritrean who had been reading a Robert Ludlum pocketbook in a store. Snapping the book shut, he walked briskly away from the reporter.

The answer to the question --whether the Ethiopian government is attempting to win the hearts and minds of Eritreans or simply bent on a military victory--is likely to determine whether there is a chance to end soon the two-decades-old Eritrean independence war that drains Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest nations.

A four-day visit last month to Ethiopia's northern province, where Africa's longest war has been raging since the former Italian colony was incorporated into Ethiopia in 1962, provided evidence that the military government is on a two-track approach, seeking both military and peaceful solutions.

Two huge truck convoys rolling in opposite directions on the same day illustrated the dual efforts to pacify the predominantly Moslem region whose independence drive has exacerbated Ethiopia's relations with its Arab neighbors.

About 100 trucks carrying goods toward Addis Ababa were on the highway headed south out of the Eritrean capital one morning last month. Although the convoy passed through numerous military checkpoints, there was no military escort.

Three years ago such a scene would have been impossible. Asmara was under siege and supplies had to be flown in at considerable risk since Eritrean guerrillas were entrenched just three miles from the airport and their rockets occasionally hit the landing strip.

So, the presence of such a large convoy was evidence that the government has been successful in restoring stability and commerce to major areas of the countryside.

Peace is returning to much of the area, thousands of guerrillas have taken advantage of an amnesty, refugees are returning from Sudan, curfews have been relaxed and the government goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the people are living normal lives.

On the way back up the Rift Valley escarpment in the afternoon, however, a massive military convoy rolled toward Asmara. The "cargo" was several thousand troops, armed with rifles, machine guns and artillery pieces.

It was impossible to determine why more than 5,000 troops were on the move or where they were headed, but the diplomatic grapevine back in Addis Ababa would have it that these were major elements of Ethiopia's 21st Division.

The theory is that the division's 10,000 to 12,000 troops had recently been sent from the Addis Ababa area to Tigre Province, south of Eritrea, where other civil strife is under way. Having cleaned up some dissident activity in Tigre, the troops were now moving into Eritrea, reportedly to launch another offensive against the Eritrean guerrillas in their last stronghold at Nakfa, a mountain redoubt 150 miles north of Asmara.

Nakfa is the only major town still controlled by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. At their high-water mark in 1978 the front and another group, the Eritrean Liberation Front, controlled most of the region except for the cities of Asmara and Massawa.

The guerrillas missed the opportunity to gain control in 1978 when the two organizations clashed, giving the Ethiopians time to win a war against Somalia in the south with Soviet and Cuban support and then regroup and drive the Eritrean forces out of their strongholds.

The last Ethiopian attempt to retake Nakfa two years ago was a disaster, with thousands of soldiers killed. Since then, however, fighting between the guerrilla groups has escalated and most of the ELF loyalists are believed to have retreated into Sudan, where they are supposed to be disarmed. The more radical EPLF is estimated to have about 10,000 guerrillas under arms, about half its 1978 strength.

The approach of Chairman Mengistu Haile-Mariam, leader of the military government, "is still that of the ancient Ethiopian emperors--you settle your problems militarily," a Western diplomat said, especially if the opposition is weakened.

Thus, it is expected that the Ethiopian Army--the largest in black Africa with approximately 250,000 troops plus a large militia--may well launch another offensive.

One indication that Mengistu is pursuing the military route is a recent fraying of relations with Sudan, whose cooperation is needed to bring about a negotiated settlement. There are about 400,000 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, and the country had been used as a rear base by the guerrillas until an exchange of visits between Mengistu and Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri in 1980 and 1981.

Last August, however, Ethiopia joined an alliance with Libya, Sudan's archenemy. Since then Ethiopian-Sudanese ties have taken a turn for the worse.

Ethiopia called in the Sudanese charge d'affaires in Addis Ababa and publicly complained about U.S. military maneuvers in Sudan. Foreign Minister Feleke Wolde-Giorgis played down in an interview the need for cooperation with Sudan, saying that only Ethiopians could solve the Eritrean problem.

At short notice, Ethiopia canceled a long-scheduled visit of university officials and scholars to help celebrate the jubilee of the University of Khartoum.

Sudanese officials say they want to maintain the old rapprochement but it is up to Ethiopia to show reciprocity.

In such circumstances, there has been no visible movement toward negotiations, but the government's longstanding amnesty offer to the guerrillas has finally registered some success.

Officials say about 10,000 guerrillas have turned themselves in since September 1980. In addition, relief and rehabilitation commissioner Shimelis Aduna says another 70,000 civilian refugees have returned from Sudan.

Sudanese and Western diplomats dispute the figures, saying they are exaggerated, but they acknowledge that progress has been registered.

Most of the former guerrillas go through a three-month reeducation program, combining academic and literacy studies and Marxist ideological training. The main problem is that there are few jobs for the returnees after they leave the camps.

Most of those in the camps are former ELF guerrillas. Yemani Voldai, 25, said he had been wavering in his support for Eritrean independence and "the war between the EPLF and the ELF was the last straw." He and his 19-year-old wife returned in November with their 3-month-old son Daniel, who was born in Sudan.

Tesfamikael Measho, administrator of Serai district south of Asmara, said the regime is appealing to Eritreans by putting more of them in high government positions rather than reserving such posts for the ruling Amharas from the south. The top official in Eritrea, Maj. Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, however, is Amhara. More recognition is also given to local Eritrean heroes of past struggles, Tesfamikael said.

The nationwide government policy of giving local areas self-administration is also having a favorable impact in Eritrea. Asmara for the first time has an elected mayor, Afework Berhane.

Afework, who was city manager under the old regime, said: "The government wants people to be responsible for their own affairs. This is a huge change." He pointed out that in the past the mayor was appointed by emperor Haile Selassie and accountable only to him. In contrast, the city council now draws up and controls its own budget.

Probably in the long run a degree of autonomy provides the best hope for a negotiated solution in Eritrea since the mountainous terrain augurs against total military victory.

The problem is that Eritrea, with 2.5 million population, is only one of several regions in Ethiopia involved in civil unrest. One diplomat estimates that only about 60 percent of the country is pacified, noting there are also problems in the west and the south. Ethiopian officials dismiss such unrest simply as banditry. With at least 36 distinct tribes in a country of 32 million population, the government has to be careful not to provide Eritreans powers that it does not grant elsewhere.

The Tigre People's Liberation Front, which is closely associated with the EPLF, claims to have scored several military victories over the Ethiopian Army to the south in Tigre in recent months.

Government officials discount the attacks as simply the activity of bandits despite the movement of military reinforcements into the area.

The TPLF has issued detailed communiques on attacks claiming hundreds of casualties and giving names of military officers and local government officials killed in some cases. The fighting has also reportedly spilled over into neighboring Wollo Province.

The EPLF also claimed that it inflicted heavy losses on Ethiopian units in November west of Asmara toward the Sudan border. The communiques, issued in Rome or Baghdad, are generally regarded as exaggerated--one claimed 965 Ethiopians killed--but they give the impression that fighting is escalating.

Tesfamikael, the Serai administrator, said the EPLF was only driven out of the area finally in September in a battle at Maidema, about 50 miles west of the district capital of Adi Ugri.

To get permission to drive to Adi Ugri unescorted, it is necessary to go to three government offices to get the proper documents and stamped authorizations. There are seven military roadblocks along the 30-mile route.

Trips by road north and east of Asmara must have a military escort. The few foreigners allowed into those areas must go by airplane.

The airport at Asmara is ringed by antiaircraft guns, bunkers and radar installations. Key buildings in the city are protected by troops using sandbag fortifications.

The atmosphere, however, is generally relaxed, especially since the curfew was eased in September from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Even though the war is continuing, residents talk about the difficulties of getting food during the 1978 siege as something from the distant past.

Although only about 600 Italians remain, the city of about 300,000 population still has the air of a southern Mediterranean town.

War damage is visible all over Eritrea, but the worst is in the port of Massawa, which covers the mainland and some Red Sea islands just off the coast. The guerrillas occupied the mainland while the government held onto the islands during 11 months of shelling in 1977-78 until the Army lifted the siege.

Most of the buildings in the market area of the mainland were destroyed or badly damaged. The area resembles pictures of World War II bombing destruction in Germany.

With most of the prewar population of 40,000 having returned to the city, the government has rehabilitated some wrecked structures for housing, schools and emergency feeding centers for children.

It is estimated, however, that it will cost at least $30 million to restore the area and there is no sign of the government being able to provide such funds.