Famine relief in drought-stricken northern Ethiopia has been seriously hampered by a bitter guerrilla war that has put many starving people beyond the reach of relief assistance.

A kind of politics of starvation is being conducted, because of the war, by both the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which claims to control most of the northern province of Tigray.

Because of the failure of last year's rains, it is estimated that 1 million people are suffering serious food shortages in Tigray, which is slightly larger than West Virginia.

Hundreds of thousands of people have run out of food in their rugged mountain villages, usually a collection of mud huts at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. Many walk up to four days to distribution centers to get supplies for their families and then trudge back.

They are in effect voting with their stomachs, because deciding what direction they walk becomes a political act. If they head eastward to the more populated Addis Ababa-Asmera road, they are siding with the Ethiopian government. If they walk to the west, they go to the area controlled by the Tigray Front. Others continue westward to Sudan, swelling the refugee toll from Ethiopia's seemingly endless regional wars.

It is estimated that perhaps 250,000 Tigreans live in areas where neither the writ of the government nor of the guerrillas applies--so remote is their mountain redoubt. "Control" is a rather meaningless term in talking about an area where historically there has been little government presence.

The Ethiopian government denies guerrilla claims that the Army is carrying out an offensive in the area.

It also denies the Tigray Front's claim to control territory and, in fact, refuses to acknowledge the existence of the organization. Officials simply refer to "bandits" operating in the region.

The government's statistics on the victims of the drought are divided into "natural disasters" and "man-made disasters." The latter term is a euphemism for the war.

It is only one of at least four wars various tribal groupings are carrying out against the dominant Amharas who have ruled the country from Addis Ababa since the late 19th century, when Emperor Menelik conquered the outlying areas and melded them into a shaky "empire" that has now become a Marxist state.

The most vexing of the wars for Ethiopia is in Eritrea, north of Tigray, where several guerrilla groups have been fighting for the independence of the province for 22 years. Ethiopian officials regard the Tigray Front as merely the extension of the activities of the main Eritrean guerrilla group, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

A Tigray Front official in Rome reflected the resentment at Amhara rule when asked about the impact of the war on industries in the region:

"You mean to say the Amhara people ever thought of having industries in Tigray? Never. Having an industry in Tigray would mean helping the people. Nobody ever thought of helping us. We have always been oppressed."

He refused to say how many guerrillas are under arms or where they get their support, saying most of their weapons are captured from the Ethiopian Army.

There is an ironic ideological twist to the war: The Tigray Front claims to be truly Marxist and says the military government merely pays lip service to Marxism. The battle between them is basically a struggle for political power.

Unlike its rebel allies to the north in Eritrea who demand total independence, the Tigray Front says it only wants "self-determination," or a system under which the province would be governed by its residents rather than the central government in Addis Ababa.

But if that were implemented throughout the embattled country, it would most likely lead to the dismantling of Ethiopia as it is today.

No Ethiopian government could tolerate that, so the war is likely to go on for a long time in the remote mountains. For the hungry people of Tigray, that simply means the starvation is likely to get worse.

Both sides are seeking international assistance to feed their supporters. Thus food aid takes on a political tinge.

The bulk of the food is being channeled to the government in Addis Ababa, since foreign governments and international aid organizations are limited to dealing with established regimes. Also, access from the Ethiopian side is easier as there are no major roads into Tigray from Sudan.

Nevertheless, some nongovernment relief organizations are providing food through the Relief Society of Tigray, which is allied to the Tigray Front. The private agencies ask to remain anonymous, since some are also working inside Ethiopia.

Nine foreign relief workers and about 30 Ethiopians working for nongovernment agencies became victims of the politics of food two months ago when they were kidnaped by the Tigray Front while working in the town of Korem, where 48,000 drought victims were living in primitive shelters.

Tigray Front guerrillas captured the town from the Ethiopian Army in a major battle in mid-April in which about 40 Ethiopian soldiers and Tigray Front guerrillas were killed. The guerrillas held the town on the Tigray-Welo border for three days, dispersed the people from the shelters, took the food and then kidnaped the relief workers, most of whom are with the British Save the Children Fund.

Tigray Front headquarters in Rome said the foreigners, including six women, were not hostages but were being taken on a "guided tour" of the province to see the plight of the people and the effects of alleged bombing raids.

The hostages were finally freed unharmed early this month in Khartoum after a two-month trek through Tigray.

The Tigray Front has mounted a publicity campaign to discredit the Ethiopian government and divert assistance to the Relief Society.

"The drought-stricken people of Tigray are being bombed by a regime which is asking for international humanitarian assistance," a Tigray Front spokesman said in Rome. "We call on all countries and humanitarian organizations to withhold their support for the Ethiopian regime."

The government suffered a temporary setback in the propaganda war in March when a front-page article in the Sunday Times of London alleged that Ethiopia was diverting food aid to feed the Army and to pay the Soviet Union for weapons purchases. Much of the information was provided by Tigray Front supporters.

U.S. officials cited the report as a reason not to assist Ethiopia. Food relief to Ethiopia was put in question until officials of the U.N. World Food Program and the European Community, the two main donors, investigated and gave the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission a clean bill of health.

"We have not run into a country where there is less abuse of food relief," a European Community official said in Addis Ababa. "There is a conscious effort by the government to use food aid for proper purposes."

He added, however, "It would be a foolish person who says there is no diversion."

He explained the presence of European Community food in Army warehouses by saying the Army often transports and stores food relief, because it has the vehicles. Sometimes, he said, it provides food for relief that is then replaced by international food aid.

Martin Mock, the senior adviser for the U.N. World Food Program, said, "In Ethiopia over 90 percent of food relief goes to proper recipients. I couldn't say that for any of the other four countries I've served in in Africa or the Middle East over the last 20 years."

Food is trucked to Mekele, the Tigray capital, with Army convoys because of the security situation. Relief supplies on the Ethiopian side are only available in three other towns in the province.

Because of the war, access to the province beyond the immediate environs of Mekele is prohibited to foreigners. Although security clearance was given for a flying visit to Aksum, the ancient Ethiopian capital and a former tourist center, officials refused to allow this reporter to make the trip.

The war has also spilled over into the neighboring provinces of Gondar and Welo, parts of which the Tigray Front claims for Tigray.

The remote shelter at Zwi Hamusit, then housing more than 2,000 people in Gondar province, was attacked last month three days after two officials of the World Food Program and a reporter inspected relief operations. There were no reports of casualties and there was hardly any food to steal.

However, the attack did have an effect on food distribution, since Ethiopian relief workers evacuated the site, fearing that the raid may have been aimed at curtailing assistance by capturing more foreigners. Since then the Zwi Hamusit shelter has been closed and the residents have walked back to their villages or found other places to live.

Driving north from the provincial capital, Gonder, the three-man party was only allowed to go as far as Debark, 70 miles from Gonder and about half the distance to the Tigray border.

"It's dangerous, because of the antirevolutionaries," an official of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said. It is a "man-made disaster," he acknowledged. NEXT: Dimensions of drought.