Ethiopia, in a major policy shift, appears ready to allow American private relief organizations to begin feeding hundreds of thousands of famine victims living in rebel-held areas.

"It appears that this will be allowed to happen shortly," said M. Peter McPherson, the Agency for International Development administrator. "We think this is a good step in the right direction."

Ethiopian sources here indicated that the Addis Ababa government's position had changed and that it was willing to cooperate with U.S. relief groups interested in distributing food in the contested northern areas.

The plan, McPherson said, calls for the initial opening of 14 new food distribution centers in Eritrea, Ethiopia's northernmost province, to feed at least 180,000 famine victims living in contested areas. AID has set aside an additional 16,000 tons of food and $4.5 million for the new program.

Other centers would subsequently be opened in contested areas elsewhere and run by Catholic Relief Services or other groups.

The Ethiopian government already has allowed a survey of prospective relief sites but has let U.S. officials know that it does not regard them as anything more than an addition to the scores of feeding centers already in place.

"They have told us it's an application of an old policy," McPherson said.

Nonetheless, the Ethiopian decision to allow U.S. relief groups to operate beyond government lines in contested areas represents a considerable shift in attitude.

It constitutes a major breakthrough in the struggle of Western relief agencies to provide food to an estimated 2.3 million famine-afflicted people living in rebel-held northern areas long cut off from all relief. Altogether, roughly 7 million people have been affected by the drought in Ethiopia.

An expansion of the emergency relief program should reduce, if not eliminate, the need for the U.S. cross-border feeding program operating from the Sudan into rebel territory. This operation has been denounced by the Ethiopian government as simply a cover for alleged American assistance to opposition guerrilla groups fighting in the north.

Ethiopian concern about reports that the cross-border operation was about to be vastly expanded may have played a role in convincing the government to allow U.S. relief agencies to extend their feeding programs into contested areas.

The U.S.-sponsored operation has recently been plagued by logistical problems and is now uncertain because of the change of Sudanese governments. The new regime is seeking to improve its relations with Ethiopia and has not decided whether to allow expansion of the cross-border feeding program, for which the United States was gearing up just before the April 6 military coup that overthrew President Jaafar Nimeri.

U.S. and Ethiopian officials held talks in February in Geneva and later in Addis Ababa about the possibility of two American relief groups, World Vision and Catholic Relief Services, extending their relief operations beyond government lines. Until recently, however, Addis Ababa appeared unlikely to accede because of its sensitivity to foreign relief groups operating in areas not under its direct control.

According to U.S. officials, the new development would enable U.S. organizations "to build out" from government-held areas, setting up distribution stations where Ethiopians living in rebel areas could come and go freely without fear of army intervention.

Addis Ababa would treat the new sites as simply "an extension" of the "normal feeding program," these officials explained.

Robert J. McCloskey, Catholic Relief Services vice president for external affairs, confirmed that his organization had made a preliminary survey of eight or nine Eritrean sites that he said were in "areas of conflict." He said his group was preparing to submit a proposal to AID to begin feeding 40,000 families, or about 200,000 people, who would come from a 60-mile radius around each site to collect rations for a month at a time.

Catholic Relief Services is already working in Eritrea, he said.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has formally asked both the United Nations and the United States for additional aid to start a rehabilitation program to move famine victims out of the relief camps and back cultivating the land.

In a speech to the U.N. Economic and Social Council May 17, Ethiopia's commissioner for relief and rehabilitation, Dawit Wolde Georgis, appealed to the world community "to join hands with the government and people of Ethiopia in the search for a longterm solution in order to enable us to prevent the recurrence of the tragic human drama."

In an interview here last week, the Ethiopian official said the government was trying to raise $250 million to launch a rehabilitation program by July. The request, he said, included $95 million for farm tools and money to buy 130,000 tons of seeds, oxen, fertilizer and pesticide.

"There has been no response at all," Dawit said. "It's worrying me and everyone in Addis."

He said 120,000 to 150,000 drought victims now in relief camps could go back to their homes, "but they need oxen, seeds and tools." Another 80,000 people, he said, were in too bad condition and would have to remain in the camps for at least another year.

An AID spokesman said the agency was considering starting a rehabilitation program that would include seeds and hand tools for farmers. "I can't give you any specific figures but the intent is there," he said.

No consideration is being given, however, to any longterm projects because of what the agency regards as the prevailing "hostile policy environment" in Ethiopia, he said.