The UN body said more than 2 million children died this year of hunger and diseases in Africa while the world's attention was on a series of natural disasters and the spread of bird flu.

"Competition for limited food resources in fragile environments can cause instability," said James Morris, Executive Director of WFP, on Thursday.

"We have seen this problem for decades not just in Sudan, but in Mauritania, Senegal and other countries as well. It was one of the early warning signs in Niger, when unrest broke out between nomadic grazers and villagers."

Citing ongoing armed confrontations in Sudan, Somalia, Angola, northern Uganda, Congo and West Africa, Morris said hunger and conflict go hand in hand in much of Africa.

Some 43 million people risk
hunger in sub-Saharan Africa

However, Morris pointed out that Africans at war get far more attention than Africans at peace. He noted that nine out of 10 deaths from hunger and malnutrition occur among the chronically starved.

Morris said WFP is struggling to feed 43 million people this year in sub-Saharan Africa - double the number in 1995.

Global hunger

Despite a pledge by the majority of the world's governments to reduce the number of the hungry by 50% as part of the Millennium Development Goals, Morris said there are currently 852 million hungry people globally.

He said this figure has been rising by six million a year since 2000.

"When 170 heads of state gathered here for the summit in September, only 18 mentioned hunger as a serious challenge, barely one in 10," Morris said during a speech to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

"Today, our loss reached 2.1 million - that is the number of young children who have died this year of hunger and related diseases in Africa."

Fuelling migration

Morris said hunger also spurs the continuing migration of rural people into cities where basic social services - including subsidised or free food - often act as a lure.

In countries such as Uganda and Kenya, for example, 80% of the poorest people are rural. Yet many African governments and international donors have neglected investment in agriculture.

To better reach African victims of hunger, Morris called for more comprehensive and better early warning systems, stronger vulnerability assessments and contingency planning, and greater attention to maintaining food stocks both at the national and community level.