A locust invasion last year followed by drought has left a third of the population in this already desperately poor west African nation at risk of malnutrition or worse, with children the most vulnerable.

But repeated UN appeals beginning in November went unanswered until the situation became a crisis.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, visiting the capital Niamey on Saturday, chided the international community for its "indifference and avarice" toward Niger.

France said it was tripling some aid to Niger, its former colony.

On Thursday and Friday, 278 metric tons of beans and oil were delivered to Concern International in Tahoua, some 400km northwest of Maradi, the eastern town that has become a hub for aid agencies.

In the World Food Programme's warehouse located in Maradi's Ali Dansofho neighbourhood, some 2,000 metric tons of sorghum bought in Nigeria and 41 metric tons of vegetable oil and 69 metric tons of beans are ready to be dispatched.

Various aid agencies will distribute the WFP stocks.

First delivery

"Things have been crazy over the past few days," said Ibrahim Badamassi, regional coordinator of the World Food Programme in Maradi, while keeping a watchful eye on the dozens of men loading two trucks ready to leave for Tahoua.

A transportation and loading order from the WFP office in Niamey reached Badamassi by fax on 29 July and in the afternoon, the first truckload was delivered to the warehouse of the Agency for Muslims in Africa, an aid group working in the country.

"We thank God, even if the food came a little late"

Mohammed Abdoulaye,
Agency for Muslims in Africa

In all, the agency will receive 250 metric tons of sorghum.

"We thank God, even if the food came a little late," said Mohammed Abdoulaye of the Agency for Muslims in Africa, while opening the storage room to show the already depleting resources, just enough to last a couple of weeks, he said.

Hope

"There is still hope for many more hungry people and even enough to go beyond the next harvest," due in October, said Abdoulaye.

Since July, the agency's feeding centre in Maradi alone has admitted some 700 mothers and children, feeding them every day, up to five meals per malnourished child.

"With what we just received, we can do even more, send the mothers home with some extra food," Abdoulaye said, as a group of women pounded sorghum or stirred pots filled with rice for lunch.

For Neil Brown, a member of the British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit, distribution also begins with a stop at the WFP warehouse.

After leaving an address with Badamassi for delivery of four tons of beans, 53 metric tons of sorghum and 2000 litres of oil, Brown explains that distribution will only start in about a week, after an expected 113 metric tons of enriched flour arrives.

Airlift

"The grains and enriched flour has to go hand in hand, otherwise the nutritional programme is unsuccessful," he said.

On Friday, 80 metric tons of biscuits were airlifted from Italy to Niamey, the capital, 660km west along the desert road.

A cargo plane filled with supplies
arrived at Maradi on Saturday

A shipment of 674 metric tons of rice, 115 metric tons of oil and 148 metric tons of beans will arrive in the coming days at the WFP warehouse in Maradi.

On Saturday, an Antovov 12 cargo plane, chartered by the French aid organisation Reunir, arrived at Maradi airport from the southern French town of Marseille.

On board were former French health minister Bernard Kouchner, a founding member of the association, and 18 metric tons of enriched milk and a highly nutritional peanut paste.