Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, mostly women and children, are threatened with starvation in the next few months in a famine that could become one of the most catastrophic in African history.

Despite urgent appeals for international assistance while there is still time to save thousands of lives, the United States, the world's largest source of surplus food, has virtually turned its back on the potential disaster.

About 50 to 100 children are already dying daily, according to Trevor Page, a United Nations World Food Program official who recently toured areas of northern Ethiopia where the government and relief agencies say 3 million people are affected by drought and 1 million are in dire need.

Most relief officials think that the death toll is likely to increase sharply until the next harvest in November unless foreign donors provide emergency food supplies and massive assistance in transportation to bring food to isolated areas.

Some say the toll could approach the 200,000 who died in the same area a decade ago in Africa's worst famine. Unlike that drought, which Emperor Haile Selassie's government tried to hide, this time Ethiopia's military government has provided ample warning and has sought to organize international aid. These efforts can prevent a major disaster if assistance is provided, officials say.

The relief effort, however, has been made much more difficult by wars that have engulfed Eritrea and Tigray provinces and have spilled over into the other two drought-affected provinces in the north, Gondar and Welo.

Several guerrilla groups have been fighting the central government for the independence of Eritrea for 22 years in Africa's longest war. In Tigray, the region hit hardest by drought, the Tigray People's Liberation Front guerrilla organization claims to have captured most of the countryside in its struggle for autonomy. The Ethiopian government denies the claim.

The intermingling of famine and war has made the Ethiopian drought a classic example on both the domestic and international level of the politics of starvation.

With the government and the guerrillas jockeying for international aid, the Tigray Front has charged Ethiopia with diverting food assistance from the needy--charges that Ethiopia and international aid organizations have strongly denied.

Meanwhile, the United States has virtually bowed out of its customary role of providing humanitarian relief to the starving because of Ethiopia's close ties to the Soviet Union.

This series will examine the politics of starvation and its impact on millions of people in a country where hunger is a permanent fact of life, the only difference being whether scores die or tens of thousands, depending on the vicissitudes of nature.

Relief officials interviewed in Washington, London, Rome, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa say the Reagan administration is putting politics ahead of humanitarian considerations.

Ethiopia, the closest ally of the United States in black Africa until a Marxist revolution overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974, is now a firm friend of the Soviet Union, its arms supplier, and host to about 12,000 Cuban troops. The military government in the East African nation is sharply critical of the United States, professes a common ideology with the Soviet Union and shares another Soviet trait--an inability to feed its people without importing food.

A western diplomat said it was clear that the United States was not going to provide major assistance unless others fail to do so.

"There is not much inclination for the United States to feed Ethiopians while the Russians arm the country and direct it against the United States," he said.

Most of the emergency food aid has been provided by the U.N. World Food Program, the European Community and individual European nations.

"European countries are quite prepared to differentiate between economic aid needs and humanitarian needs of starving people," another western diplomat said.

In general, that has also been the policy of the United States. The diplomat noted the long-standing tradition of such American humanitarian assistance given despite political considerations, recalling that in the 1920s, under conservative Republican leadership, the U.S. government organized a massive relief effort to overcome a famine in the Soviet Union even while Washington refused to recognize the new Communist government.

Some western donors have pointed out to Ethiopian officials that their Soviet Bloc allies give them very little food assistance.

"You can't give what you don't have," said Shimelis Adugna, until recently the head of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

The Soviet Union, a major food importer, recently pledged to give Ethiopia 9,500 metric tons of rice because of the crisis, almost twice the U.S. total of about 5,500 tons. The current U.S. allocation includes about 4,000 tons distributed through Catholic Relief Services in an annual program that is being eliminated and 1,500 tons of emergency supplies. The most visible aid was the airlift this month requested by the World Food Program of almost 100 tons of instant corn soya milk, used in feeding undernourished children.

An Agency for International Development spokesman in Washington rejected the criticisms of the U.S. response to the famine in Ethiopia. Besides the responses to Catholic Relief Services and the World Food Program, he said the United States is providing food aid to the refugees who are moving from the area into Sudan. Ethiopia is "fairly well taken care of with all the other donors," he said, in a reference to European and other international programs.

Shimelis, who worked closely with U.S. officials in setting up an early warning system to prevent famine after the 1973-74 drought, called the U.S. assistance "insignificant" for such a major donor nation.

"To help Ethiopia establish the early warning system and then do nothing about the warnings is illogical, to say the least," he said.

So politically charged is the issue that American Embassy officials refuse to speak for attribution about the U.S. policy except to hand out a release that outlines the limited emergency assistance and says the government "is continuing to monitor the situation."

Most of the U.S. assistance will be provided through Catholic Relief Services, which made the emergency request last December. It took five months for the U.S. government to approve the emergency aid.

Not mentioned in the U.S. Embassy press release is the fact that while the seriousness of the famine was becoming apparent early this year, the Reagan administration cut out of the fiscal 1984 budget an annual relief appropriation of $2 million to $3 million that had been channeled through the Catholic organization for the past several years.

"In the past the U.S. policy has been to give more to favorable countries but not to cut out food aid at times of famine," said the Rev. Thomas Fitzpatrick, Catholic Relief Services director in Ethiopia. "This is the first time our program has been cut out for political reasons, but we are not accepting that the program will remain cut.

"The fact that the program is not in the budget means somebody made a decision against Ethiopia," Fitzpatrick added.

More than 70 members of Congress have asked the Agency for International Development to restore the cut funds and also to respond favorably to a United Nations appeal for $35 million worth of food, transportation, shelter and medicine. So far, AID has not reacted.

A U.S. aid official in Africa pointed out that Ethiopia was the only country among the 39 on the continent receiving U.S. food grants to be deleted from the program.

"It sticks out like a sore thumb," he said as he looked at the list of recipients. "It has almost always been the policy that Title II food aid in emergency situations is apolitical." Under Title II, the United States pays all costs of food aid, including transportation.

The only exception he could think of happened two years ago when the Reagan administration cut off food grants to Mozambique for six months after the government expelled U.S. diplomats and their spouses, accusing them of being CIA agents. Ironically, Mozambique is the number one recipient of direct U.S. food aid under the Title II program this year.

The aid official also pointed out that Title II aid to Africa has been cut sharply from $85 million in 1982 to a proposal for $71 million in fiscal 1984, despite widespread drought on the continent and significant increases in transortation costs.

Ethiopia, however, does not make it easy for Washington to give aid. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the country's military ruler, routinely attacks the United States in the harshest terms.

Last September, Mengistu called the United States "arrogant," accused it of using "mercenary proxies in economic sabotage" and said Washington was "arming bandit gangs to pollute peace." In contrast, he said, the Soviet Union "earnestly stands for peace."

Those kinds of remarks and Ethiopia's anti-American votes at the United Nations have particularly irked Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the world organization.

In addition, the Ethiopian military government has a poor record in the human rights field, coming under criticism in the State Department annual report and from Amnesty International. Many opponents of the government have been imprisoned for years without trial, and thousands were killed in a bloody campaign of suppression in the late 1970s.

"No one in the U.S. government wants to do do anything" about the Ethiopian famine, a Washington source said. "They just want the problem to go away because they don't see any political benefits and they don't want to antagonize the lady in New York."

Kirkpatrick, he added, has had "a chilling effect" on U.S. humanitarian policies.

Maj. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, the new director of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, made a plea for U.S. help but acknowledged in an interview that help was unlikely to be forthcoming.

"U.S. transportation assistance would save many lives," he said, calling the lack of serviceable vehicles the most serious problem.

There is currently enough grain in the country to feed the drought-stricken people in the north. This is so because the government has released marketed stocks needed later in the year in urban areas. Those stocks are to be replaced by similar amounts of international relief supplies when they arrive.

Supplies in the distribution areas, however, are insufficient because of lack of vehicles and poor roads. Relief officials say the transportation problem is urgent: if the rainy season starts on schedule before the end of the month, thus relieving the drought, it will make distribution all the more difficult for the limited trucks available.

The U.N. Disaster Relief Office has issued an appeal for 100,000 tons of food, 140 trucks and about 75 trailers, which would cost about $35 million. It also called for an airlift, if three planes capable of landing and taking off on short dirt airstrips can be provided.

So far no nation has provided transportation, although the European Community has pledged $500,000 worth of vital spare parts, some to be airlifted, to get disabled vehicles back on the road. The relief commission has almost 300 vehicles to cover a country twice the size of France, but only about 170 are operational.

Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country with more than 40 million people, "has less roads per square mile than any other African country," a western diplomat said.

About 60 percent of the U.N. appeal for food has already been pledged or sent, a U.N. official in Geneva said in a telephone interview.

"It is disappointing to have the grain and no way to transport it," said Maj. Dawit, who has a law degree from Columbia University in New York.

Although he was critical of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia, he said the government appreciated a recent U.S. allocation of $900,000 to assist in resettling Ethiopian refugees returning from Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti.

He concluded the interview by saying, "Get us something from the United States."

"Undoubtedly, if the United States pulled out all the stops the effect would be massive because you have the transport, you have the supplies," the European diplomat said.

That will certainly not happen, however, since it would probably go beyond the definition of humanitarian aid. U.S. assistance to the country is legally limited to the humanitarian field because Ethiopia has not compensated American companies that it nationalized in the 1970s.

Page, the World Food Program official heading the relief effort, was philosophical about the U.S. attitude.

The U.S. has taken the approach that it doesn't like the Ethiopian government so let some other countries bail out Ethiopia. So, if the U.S. doesn't want to bail them out, that's its business. There are other sources of food," he said in Rome.

The possibility that the Reagan administration was using food for ideological purposes was another matter.

"People who are in need of food don't care about Marxism or capitalism," Page said. "They just have empty bellies that need to be filled."

Martin Mock, a World Food Program official in Ethiopia, said, "You cannot just close your eyes. If you think, 'Let them die because they are socialists,' then you should say that, or you should do something."

Ethiopia's Marxist line or even its close ties to the Soviet Union, however, are probably not reason enough by themselves for the U.S. reluctance to assist.

Marxist Mozambique has a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union but in this fiscal year Maputo has already received 43,500 tons of free food from the United States valued at almost $10 million, that is, almost twice the amount originally allocated. The southern African country is also in the throes of a serious drought but without the life-threatening dimensions of the drought here.

Mozambique is bound to get more help since the administration announced earlier this month that $25 million in emergency food aid would be made available to 10 southern African nations even while it maintained silence on the pleas to assist Ethiopia.

The Reagan administration is seeking to use the good offices of Mozambican President Samora Machel in its attempt to negotiate the independence of South African-controlled Namibia.

The politics with Ethiopia, however, are all negative. Ethiopia has Cuban troops, provides port facilities for the Soviet Navy and has an alliance with Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, all black marks in the Reagan administration's book.

Ethiopia has paid for its strident anti-American policy. Under Haile Selassie it was one of the leading recipients of western aid. Now it receives about $250 million a year, only $6 per capita, the least amount of any developing country.

Meanwhile, the future of tens of thousands of starving people depends on international aid.

Until the next harvest in November, "there is no possibility of improvement in the food situation without international assistance," said Kokebie Asres, head of early warning and planning services in the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

"Warnings were issued in September, October and March, each one a little more frightening," he said. "But as I open my report on responses for the last nine months, I must say it is not very encouraging." Next: The human cost