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NIAMEY (Reuters) - More than half of the population of Niger will go without food at some point this year, according to a leaked official survey contradicting public assurances by the government of the poor West African state.
About 7.8 million people in the desert nation of 15 million will face food insecurity -- a term that covers stages from missing meals to malnutrition and famine -- according to a report in Le Canard Enchaine, one of the country's newspapers.
"These figures are the same as those found by our survey," an official involved in the study told Reuters on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Food security is a politically sensitive subject in uranium-exporting Niger, which suffered severe shortages in 2005 affecting 4 million people.
The government resisted foreign help and denied there was a famine until media coverage attracted international attention.
"Our instructions were clear -- to say nothing without the go-ahead from the government," the official said.
The figures contradicted a government statement on Monday saying no one in the country would go without food.
The statement was issued after official statistics showed farmers produced 26 percent less food in the 2009/10 harvest than in the previous year. The government said it had built up stocks.
Niger, whose President Mamadou Tandja has attracted widespread criticism and cuts in development aid for what international bodies say were unconstitutional steps last year to extend his term in and tighten his grip on power.
Domestic rivals and human rights watchdogs question Niger's use of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues flowing to country from investments by France's Areva in uranium mines and by China National Petroleum Company in oil, while huge swaths of the country languish in poverty.
Niger is at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, a composite benchmark that includes literacy rates, life expectancy and economic wealth measures.