ZINDER, Niger – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) visited skeletal babies in Niger (search) and heard villagers' pleas for help Tuesday, seeking to put attention on 5 million northwest Africans left short of food after their crops were ravaged by drought and locusts.
The United Nations (search) was among the first, in November, to warn of the impending hunger crisis in the desert region, but its appeals for aid were largely ignored. A French humanitarian group accused the world body on Monday of responding to Niger's plight with too little, too late.
Niger President Mamadou Tandja (search), who has accused U.N. officials, aid groups and opposition parties of exaggerating his country's problems for political and economic gain, welcomed Annan at the airport in the eastern city of Zinder.
"I came to see myself, to talk to the government, to see what we can do together to improve the situation not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term," Annan told reporters as he began a two-day visit.
With an entourage of more than 100 officials and journalists, Annan toured Zinder's main hospital. He spoke to mothers about their problems, standing near dozens of emaciated children in beds, some with IV drips in their arms.
Annan saw similar scenes at an emergency feeding center run by the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres. On Monday, that group said that "the U.N. was slow to react to the current epidemic of acute malnutrition in Niger, and its response continues to be inadequate."
Annan did not respond directly to the criticism, saying only: "I was very impressed with what MSF is trying to do in Niger."
Marcus Prior, a U.N. official with the World Food Program in Niger, expressed surprise at the group's critique.
"We work very closely with them in our operations here and are surprised these concerns weren't raised in Zinder," he said. "We need to focus on doing what is most important for the people in Niger, which is rolling out free food distribution in the villages as widely and as quickly as possible."
An estimated 3.6 million people are going hungry in Niger alone. The United Nations says at least 1.6 million people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania are also affected.
Niger's government and the United Nations issued largely ignored appeals for aid starting in November and top U.N. officials criticized donors for their failure to help. Earlier this month, U.N. agencies increased their appeals to a total of $75 million for Niger.
In its statement, Medecins Sans Frontieres said U.N. food distributions were "not reaching those with the greatest needs, especially children under five years of age in the worst-affected areas."
The group also said the crisis appeared to be worsening in some places. It said one of its emergency feeding centers had admitted 1,053 children Aug. 8-14, compared to 403 for all of July.
Before flying to the capital, Niamey, Annan visited the village of Madara, nine miles north of Zinder. People told Annan they are too poor to buy food, which has become drastically more expensive because of the shortages.
"We're hungry, even if the government doesn't want to hear it," one villager, Abdou Illiassou, told The Associated Press. "We want the international community to keep helping us."
Niger's president drew criticism from opposition leaders after declaring that his people "look well-fed," despite the pictures of malnourished babies that have streamed out of the impoverished nation for weeks.
Tandja acknowledged food shortages, but said they were relatively normal for the nations of the Sahel, a region of arid scrubland that straddles the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.