- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

MARADI, Niger — Food by the truckload finally has reached remote northern Niger, eight months after the first pleas for help for the hungry.

Almost a third of Niger’s population of 11.3 million risks starvation in this already desperately poor West African nation, hit first by a locust invasion and then by drought.

Children are the most vulnerable: About 800,000 under age 5 suffer from hunger, including 150,000 faced with severe malnutrition. Repeated U.N. appeals beginning last November went almost unanswered, however, until the situation reached crisis proportions.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, visiting the capital Niamey yesterday, chided the international community for its “indifference and avarice.” France said it was tripling some aid to Niger, its former colony.

“We thank God, even if the food came a little late,” said Mohammed Abdoulaye of the Agency for Muslims in Africa, an aid group working in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The agency’s feeding center in Maradi has this month admitted about 700 mothers and children, feeding them every day.

“With what we just received, we can do even more [and] send the mothers home with some extra food,” Mr. Abdoulaye said, as a group of women, some wearing long veils, pounded sorghum or stirred pots filled with rice for lunch.

In the World Food Program’s warehouse in Maradi, about 2,200 tons of sorghum, 45 tons of vegetable oil and 76 tons of beans are ready to be dispatched by various aid agencies.

“Things have been crazy over the past few days,” Ibrahim Badamassi, the World Food Program’s regional coordinator, said as he watched the dozens of men loading two trucks ready to leave for Tahoua.

On Thursday and Friday, 306 tons of beans and oil were delivered to Project Concern International in Tahoua, about 250 miles northwest of Maradi, the eastern town that has become a hub for aid agencies.

On Friday, 48 tons of high-energy biscuits were airlifted from Italy to Niamey from where it will eventually be trucked to hard-hit parts of the country.

A cargo plane chartered by the French aid organization Reunir arrived yesterday, carrying former French health minister Bernard Kouchner, a founding member of the association, and 20 tons of enriched milk and a highly nutritional peanut paste.

In Paris, the Foreign Affairs Ministry released a letter that French President Jacques Chirac had sent to Nigerian President Mamadou Tandja to announce that France would triple development aid to $5.5 million to help the country feed itself.

France also will double its contribution to the WFP, to more than $1.2 million, to feed the hungry in the worst-hit areas, Mr. Chirac said.

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