May 15, 2010 / 8:24 PM / 7 years ago

Niger junta to provide free food to one million

NIAMEY, May 15 (Reuters) - Niger's military government has started an unprecedented drive to distribute free food to one million of the nearly 10 million of its population facing hunger due to failed rains last year, it announced on Saturday.

The United Nations said late last month donors had only covered a third of the $190 million aid needed to stave off a possible famine in the West African state, which consistently ranks among the poorest nations in the world.

"This is the first time we have undertaken such an operation," government spokesman Mahamadou Dan Dah said on national radio of an effort to distribute 21,000 tonnes of food to worst hit regions.

The domestic aid effort, together with the junta's willingness to work with foreign aid agencies, is in contrast to Niger's past reluctance to deal with the recurrent threat of drought in the semi-arid Sahel zone just below the Sahara.

The junta deposed former President Mamadou Tandja in February after he changed the constitution to extend his term in office. It has pledged to hand over power to civilians by next February although has not set a date for elections.

Junta officials are due to travel to Brussels this month to try and persuade the European Union to unblock $450 million of development aid frozen in protest at Tandja's power grab. On Saturday they announced an appeal for a further $30 million to help tackle polio after 15 confirmed cased in 2009.

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