NAIROBI, FEB. 11 -- In this continent's seemingly endless cycle of civil war and famine, relief workers, U.S. officials and others are calling strife-torn southern Sudan "another Somalia."

Television pictures emerging from southern Sudan are eerily similar to the images that six months ago made Somali towns such as Baidoa and Baardheere synonymous with mass starvation: emaciated people, stick-like limbs, the hollow eyes of malnourished children.

The stories being recounted by recent visitors to southern Sudan also echo the horrors once told of Somalia: hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of food, and relief assistance blocked by warfare and violence. Once-thriving villages have become ghost towns. Other villages have swelled tenfold with refugees fleeing a decade-long, brutal civil war. Hospitals are clogged with innocent victims -- mostly women, children, the elderly.

And as with Somalia last fall, voices are being raised calling for a large-scale foreign intervention to stop the Sudanese people's suffering.

"The Clinton administration has to deal with this issue quickly," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a member of the Select Committee on Hunger who visited parts of southern Sudan this week. "There is no place in Africa now that is more critical in terms of famine. . . . You've probably lost more people there {in southern Sudan} than you have in Somalia."

About 500,000 people are thought to have died directly from fighting and famine in Sudan, compared with an estimated 350,000 in Somalia.

Earlier this week, Jim Kunder, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development's office of foreign disaster assistance, called southern Sudan "the most silent of the major humanitarian crises around the world today."

Key differences between Somalia and southern Sudan make the Sudanese case seem at once more intractable and more easily forgotten. For one, the war in Sudan has raged largely hidden from view for a decade. The conflict pits the predominantly Arab, hard-line Muslim fundamentalist military government in Khartoum against black Christians and animists who make up most of the population of the south and are fighting for autonomy.

"It's a very different situation" from the war that devastated Somalia, said Robert Hadley, information officer for the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan, which has been working to provide relief to the area since 1989. "Somalia collapsed very quickly, and it was a central-government collapse," occasioned by the ouster of longtime strongman Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991. Sudan, Hadley said, is "not collapsing from the top down."

According to Hadley and other reliable accounts, Khartoum has relentlessly bombed civilian population centers in the south, usually with old Soviet-made cargo planes flying at 12,000 feet or higher over rebel-held areas and dropping 500-pound bombs out the back cargo hatch. "It's very ineffective, and it's very, very messy," said Hadley. "It's a very, very brutal weapon."

Wolf said he visited the village of Kajo Kaji near the Ugandan border, which had been the target of recent bombing. The congressman said he saw 10 bomb craters in the village. He also said he found old people and women in hospitals suffering from shrapnel wounds.

Unlike Somalia, an established relief operation has operated for years inside southern Sudan. In addition to the U.N. operation that includes World Food Program flights, several private relief organizations have been working in the region. But the humanitarian efforts have been hampered by the fighting, and both the Khartoum government and the southern rebels have forced relief agencies to negotiate areas of access.

The arduous process of negotiation was complicated when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the main rebel movement of Col. John Garang, split in 1991 over allegations of human rights abuses. Another Garang deputy broke off to form a third splinter group last year.

In recent weeks, the Khartoum government has expanded the areas where it allows relief agencies to operate, and relief workers are finding more pockets of famine and disease than they had thought existed. "As we open up new areas, it's like a Pandora's box of horrors," Hadley said. "As we get more access, we are seeing more devastating situations."

The main problems now, he said, are areas where relief workers still cannot go, such as around the village of Ayod, about 500 miles south of Khartoum, which has swelled from a prewar population of 2,000 to more than 12,000 refugees. In that village, the United Nations estimates that 40 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. Refugees are also converging on the village of Abyei, nearly 500 miles southwest of Khartoum, suggesting massive hunger in the surrounding area.