The United States charged yesterday that the death rate from disease in Ethiopia's controversial resettlement program has reached the same level as that from starvation during the worst of last year's famine that took several hundred thousand lives there.

M. Peter McPherson, director of the Agency for International Development, told reporters that "shocking eyewitness accounts" by American visitors of conditions at two resettlement villages in northwest Ethiopia showed "desperate conditions."

"American personnel estimated that death rates are as high as those that existed in the feeding camps during the worst period of last year's famine," he said, declining to say who these Americans were or how they happened to visit the two villages.

That rate, he said, averaged between seven and 15 deaths per 10,000 people each day.

Ethiopia and western donors established temporary feeding camps to treat the most seriously afflicted famine victims. Most of these relief camps have been closed because of generally improved conditions and peasants' returns to their farms with the arrival of the annual rainy season.

McPherson was critical of conditions in two of the permanent resettlement villages being established for some drought-affected peasants from the northern areas.

He said "hundreds" of Ethiopians have died in villages near Pawe, about 150 miles northwest of Addis Ababa, where 80,000 to 90,000 famine victims had been moved from northern Tigray and Wollo provinces into a swampy lowland area.

Most of the deaths, he said, were the result of such diseases as typhus rather than starvation.

"Over the next year, as much as one-quarter of the population of the villages visited will die if the present death rate continues," McPherson said.

He said the United States has asked the Ethiopian government to halt the resettlement program, which he described as "a potential man-made disaster of historical proportions."

About 550,000 peasants have been moved from northern drought areas onto empty lowlands in southern and western Ethiopia, but the government plans to resettle three times as many, he said.

McPherson said Ethiopia barred the outside news media and western relief officials from visiting the resettlement villages but said he "firmly believes" that there are "other Pawes . . . other resettlement disasters" where peasants were dying "unbeknownst to the world."

He said that "very little" U.S. famine relief food has been diverted to the resettlement program but that other western donor supplies may have gone into it.

McPherson also said the United States has asked Ethiopia to cancel its separate "villagization" program under which 33 million peasants are to be moved from scattered countryside homes into new villages over the next nine years.

He said the move affects food production.

McPherson said three Americans, two of them speaking local languages, interviewed resettled peasants Dec. 8 at two villages near Pawe, each with about 1,000 residents.

He said most of those interviewed said they had been forced to leave home, often at gunpoint, by party officials and transported to resettlement villages "just as they were about to harvest this fall's crop." Many families had been separated in the process, he added.

He said the situation at the two camps had been brought to the government's attention and cited "reason to hope" that steps would be taken to reduce suffering at the two resettlement sites.

He said U.N. officials have returned to the two villages with Ethiopian authorities to survey the situation and are working to improve conditions there.

Even if the government responds to those cases, McPherson said, "this situation will not be addressed until the Ethiopian government is really willing to stop the current program of resettlement and villagization."