In an interview with the BBC, President Mamadou Tandja acknowledged that a devastating locust invasion last year and poor rains had produced food shortages, but he said that was not unusual for his country - or for the entire Sahel region, a semi-desert scrubland that straddles the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

"We are experiencing like all the countries in the Sahel a food crisis due to the poor harvest and the locust attacks of 2004," Tandja told the BBC on Tuesday.

"The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see," he said.

TV networks have for weeks broadcast images of severely malnourished, skeletal children in Niger, many too weak to brush flies from their faces. Scores have died.

'Deception'

The United Nations says the combined effects of drought and crop-destroying locusts have left about 3.6 million people facing severe food shortages.

Photos of severely malnourished
children have flooded the media 

Children are most at risk, with 800,000 under the age of 5 who need to be fed urgently, the United Nations says.

Tandja said the reports of famine were "false propaganda" that had been used by the United Nations, aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain.

"It is only by deception that such agencies receive funding," Tandja said.

Tandja also said his government had subsidised food prices since last year in an effort to ease the crisis.

Deliveries

Meanwhile, UN officials announced on Tuesday that the UN food agency had made its first delivery - a month's supply of cereals, vegetable oil and other aid - to a village in southwestern Niger, marking the start of the World Food Programme's plan to distribute badly needed rations.

The UN food agency made its first
delivery to one of the villages

The UN agency will distribute
food over the next two months.
A second round of rations is due in September to help villagers until the harvest in October.

"This marks the beginning of distributions on a large scale," the World Food Programme, which is based in Rome, said on Monday of the delivery of the aid in Tolkobey, about 90km from Niamey, Niger's capital.

Late last month, the UN agency distributed about 3300 tons of food to humanitarian groups for severely malnourished children at special centres.

The UN agency says it has received about US$23 million in contributions but still needs about US$34 million to fund the programme.