HODDUR, Somalia (AP) _ Step off a relief plane on the dirt airstrip at this southwestern Somalia town and something remarkable happens:

A policeman in starched desert tans and blue beret comes smartly to attention, clicks his heels together and snaps an open-palm, British-style salute.

This regional capital may be the only place left with a police force in a country ripped asunder by war, anarchy and famine, a nation without a government, a land without laws.

But Hoddur, like much of the rest of Somalia, is starving.

Throughout the southern half of the Horn of Africa nation, between 1.5 and 2 million people will die by United Nations estimate unless food reaches them quickly.

The tragedy borne of drought is worsened by civil war. Aid programs so far have been undermined by widespread looting in the lawless country.

The war, and the chaos it brought to the rest of Somalia, bypassed Hoddur. Police continue to work - taking food in payment - as does an Islamic court.

''My people are very obedient. They do what I say. The peace that you see in the region is on my order,'' said Mohamed Nur Shodok, the regional governor.

Shodok, 80, was chosen governor by the people of 20 different sub-clans.

Outside help reached Hoddur only a week ago when a C-130 Hercules chartered by the U.N. World Food Program delivered 17 metric tons of food.

Three more flights since then, the latest today, brought 41 more tons of high-protein biscuits and porridge mix to this isolated town near Somalia's border with Ethiopia.

A senior official of the United States' massive Somalian relief effort says the airlift can only carry a fraction of the estimated 70,000 tons of food needed monthly to stave off starvation. Truck convoys were unfeasible because of widespread looting of food, the sorry state of Somalia's roads and the inaccessibility of many of those in need.

To address the problem, the Americans aim to complement their donations of free food with a commercial venture that will try to flood Somalia's markets with food, reducing prices and consequently tensions, said Andrew Natsios, President Bush's special coordinator for the relief effort.

Until then, Somalia is dependent on an international relief effort. In Hoddur, with the first shipment of U.S. aid, two Somali doctors working for the U.N. Children's Fund and village elders set up three feeding centers serving 3,000 children.

Today there are 12 centers serving 20,000 people.

As everywhere in southern Somalia, food attracts the starving. Some 200 people a day are straggling into Hoddur from the surrounding bush, lured by the hope of something to eat.

At a center for new arrivals, Muslema Ali, 45, and her son, Nur, 7, huddled beside a blackened cooking pot containing only the bare bones of an unidentifiable animal.

She, her husband and five surviving children arrived today after a three- day trek from a village about 30 miles away.

''All of the children in the village look like this one,'' Muslema said, pointing to Nur, who sat listlessly on the dirt beside her, his eyes blank, his limbs shrunken to twigs.

''Some families have come here,'' Muslema said. ''Some have stayed and some have died.

''There were 12 people in my family. Five have died. Father is so weak now.'' Her voice trailed off, she sighed and raised a withered hand to stroke her son's head. He seemed not to notice.

About 49,000 people live in and around Hoddur, the administrative capital of Bakol, a 250-mile-square desert region.

Before dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was toppled in January 1991, the Bakol region contained about 1 million people, most of them nomadic cattle, camel and goat herders.

Nobody knows how many are left.