A private relief group said Saturday starvation in the African nation of Mozambique is as severe as in Ethiopia during the drought of 1984 but is little understood since the famine is caused by a persistent civil war.

"The country has really been devastated," said Laurel Hone, vice president of World Vision U.S., a private international relief agency, who returned to her native Minneapolis to report on a trip to the African subcontinent.She said she witnessed starvation and suffering as severe as anything since the Ethiopian crisis, which got international attention after World Vision and other relief agencies brought back pictures of sick children.

Mozambique, which won independence from Portugal in 1975, has been torn by bands of roaming bandits terrorizing the countryside. Hone said she and other World Vision personnel found a community where 36,000 people are dying at the rate of 15 to 20 a day.

Last week, in the village of Gile in the central part of the nation, eight bags containing 110 pounds of corn each were dropped by government planes, the first food to reach the people since January, she said.

At Gile, Hone visited 6-year-old Americo, who weighed only about 25 pounds.

"He was beyond malnutrition with the typical bloated belly," Hone said. "He's showing signs of starvation - loss of hair, discoloration of skin. I picked him up. He had no body mass. I felt I was holding a skeleton."

In the village of Moputo, the population has swollen from 80,000 to 140,000 and food is only available to feed 20 children a day, she said.

"We were shocked," said Hone. "We knew of the poverty. We did not expect to see the degree of malnutrition and death by starvation. The hardest hit are the youngest children.

"There is no food in the country," she said. But she said it is a rich country in terms of resources. "The agricultural potential is tremendous."

The tropical country on the Indian Ocean is home to 14.5 million people, including 6 million affected by the war in which 1.6 million have been driven from their homes to refugee camps.

Hone said airlifting food is the only way to avoid ambush along the country's roads. "Our challenge is to get food supplies in by air," she said. "Roads are perfect spots for ambushes."

World Vision helps people in Third World countries by teaching them to become self sufficient and providing them with seed and basic tools to grow food, she said.