The government of Ethiopia today sharply increased its estimate of the number of people threatened by famine and called for "massive" international support for its effort to relocate about 1.5 million Ethiopians from the drought-stricken northern highlands to more fertile land in the southwest.

In a meeting with donor nations, the government also used harshly recriminating language to scold the noncommunist world for what it said were apathy and neglect that had caused the country's "current tragedy."

Discussion of the plan to "rehabilitate" 1.5 million northern Ethiopians by flying and trucking them south marked the first time the government has asked for support for its resettlement plan. The resettlement program has provoked widespread skepticism among western donors -- particularly the United States, by far Ethiopia's largest food benefactor.

Many western diplomats, all of whom insist on anonymity for fear of angering the Ethiopian government, say they suspect that the resettlement program may be motivated as much by security fears as by humanitarian concern. Many of the peasants slated to be moved live in mountainous Tigray province, where for 10 years guerrilla insurgents have been attacking government troops. The Tigray People's Liberation Front claims to control 85 percent of Tigray.

It is widely acknowledged that vast stretches of farm land in the northern part of the country have been ruined by bad farming practices, erosion and four years of drought. But western donor nations question whether the resettlement is indeed "voluntary," as the government here insists. They also suggest the plan may be moving too fast to adequately provide food, housing and medical care to the destitute highlanders, who are arriving at a rate of more than 2,000 a day to begin new lives on previously uninhabited land.

During a portion of today's meeting that was closed to the press, Ethiopian officials were asked by an Australian diplomat to explain why malaria and a disease borne by the tsetse fly -- both endemic to the steamy lowland resettlement areas -- would not pose a major health problem for highland people. Sources said the Ethiopians replied that their doctors could handle the problem.

The government dismisses arguments against the move, saying that it is only organizing an existing "spontaneous reaction" by famine-emaciated people who want to move to better land. Only the Australians and a handful of U.N. officials have been allowed to inspect the resettlement areas.

In the first phase of the government's plan, which is expected to take 10 months, 300,000 people from the famine-hit northern provinces of Welo and Tigray would be transported to three western provinces. About 70,000 of them already have been resettled. The second phase is scheduled to involve 1.25 million people. It would include a similar movement from Welo and Tigray, as well as resettlement of people in northern Begemdir province to areas to the south.

Officials of the Marxist military government said that 7.75 million Ethiopians now are threatened by famine -- a figure 1.3 million higher than was estimated two months ago. To save these millions from what an official described as "one of the worst catastrophes the world has yet experienced," the government demanded a "radical revision" in the kind of aid that western nations and world relief organizations give Ethiopia.

The government's recriminatory rhetoric, along with its new figures on the effect of the famine, was delivered to a meeting here of representatives from 19 donor nations, 30 voluntary relief agencies, the United Nations and several international organizations. Notably absent were representatives of Cuba, East Bloc countries and the Soviet Union, Ethiopia's military patron.

Bernahu Bayeh, who is one of the five most powerful members of Ethiopa's Politburo and the government's top official in charge of resettlement, rebuked the donors for refusing to make long-term investments in Ethiopia "commensurate both to the country's developmental needs and the energy and creativity generated in the last 10 years of the revolution."

Bernahu maintained that "it is because the necessary funds have not been available for development and for an increase in food production in traditional drought-prone areas that we are now witnesses to the current tragedy of death and starvation." Saying that northern Ethiopia is "completely scorched" by drought and incapable of "producing anything," Bernahu argued that large-scale resettlement is "the only alternative to ensure the continued survival of those [northern] people."

After the meeting, a senior western diplomat dismissed the Ethiopian accusation as "a bunch of bull stuff."

"They get you in there and berate you for what you haven't done for them, and what you have done for them isn't enough," the diplomat said. He added that the government-controlled press made little of the famine this year until after September, when the government, headed by Mengistu Haile Miriam, celebrated its 10th anniversary in Addis Ababa at a cost of between $40 and $50 million.

The Ethiopian government today increased its figures for needed food assistance from 1.2 to 1.5 million metric tons for the coming year. Of that total, only 196,855 tons have been pledged, the government said.

"Donor governments and agencies have not yet developed a system which would overcome their own bureaucracies in order to provide food when and where it is needed," charged Dowit Wolde Giorgis, commissioner of the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which manages distribution of relief food.

Bristling over the charge, western diplomats said today that it took them less than two weeks to erase a "food gap" that had been predicted for Ethiopia in December and January. More than 200,000 tons of food is scheduled to arrive at Ethiopian ports in the next six weeks.

Government figures released today on food pledged for Ethiopia do not include food moving into the country through private relief agencies. By not mentioning this food in its report, the government understated U.S. food aid to Ethiopia in the next year by about 75 percent.

The United States has pledged 50,000 tons of food in government-to-government aid to Ethiopia, more direct aid than any other nation. It also has pledged 166,000 tons of food to be distributed here by private relief organizations. Some of that food, diplomats said, is moving into northern Ethiopia by way of the Sudan -- through a "backdoor" relief program to peasants in rebel-controlled Tigray and Eritrea provinces.

The unwillingness of the Ethiopian government to publicize U.S. food aid in official documents and in the local press is symptomatic, a senior western diplomat said here, of a continued effort by the Ethiopians "to try not to give Americans credit for what they have done."