Crowds welcomed the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his wife Nane as they began a two-day visit to Niger. The visit is aimed at expressing solidarity with Niger, as the country deals with the aftermath of severe food shortages.
The President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja and hundreds of people welcomed the U.N. secretary-general to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, an area especially stricken with hunger.
On Mr. Annan's schedule is a visit to a hospital in Zinder where malnourished children are still being cared for.
A local journalist at the airport, Ousmane Toudou, says the secretary-general got a sober reception.
Mr. Toudou says that he heard a few young people in the crowd who cried repeatedly in the local language, "We are hungry.'' He says that this was most likely directed at the president rather than the secretary-general, because Mr. Tandja denied in an interview two weeks ago that his country was experiencing severe malnutrition.
Mr. Tandja said in the interview that the reports of famine were being circulated by opposition politicians and U.N. agencies for their own interests. The United Nations estimated that three million of Niger's 12 million people were facing food shortages.
Mr. Toudou says now most people in Niger have access to adequate food and that the situation has improved.
Mr. Toudou says that food is still scarce in certain zones, where not enough food aid has arrived.
The humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres criticized the United Nations, saying in a statement released Monday, that food aid was not reaching the people who needed it the most.
The statement also accused the U.N. of responding too late to the severe malnutrition in Niger, and of supporting the government in selling food aid, albeit at subsidized prices. The organization says that this prevented the poorest from gaining access to food.
Drought, plagues of locusts and high regional food prices have all contributed to severe food shortages in the country. Although the government realized that there would be a shortage of around 220 tons of grain, the international community was slow to respond to its appeal for aid.