French charity MSF fights to stay in southern Niger

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, Oct 21 (Reuters) - French charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) appealed to Niger on Tuesday to allow it to resume treating thousands of malnourished children in a southern region, three months after the government halted its work.

Niger's health authorities have accused the French medical charity of exaggerating the numbers of under-nourished infants requiring help in the Maradi region, and of failing to cooperate with the government in its humanitarian strategy.

Since a 2005 humanitarian crisis in the largely desert Sahel state, which left 3.6 million people short of food and grabbed world headlines with images of starving children, Niger's government has reacted angrily to any reports suggesting its population are going hungry or face the risk of famine.

MSF said that since the government order in July suspending its activities in and around Maradi, an estimated 8,000 severely malnourished children had been deprived of treatment at its feeding centres.

Appealing to President Mamadou Tandja to revoke the suspension, MSF President Marie-Pierre Allie said she had just visited the Maradi region.

She told Reuters Niger's national health system was "overwhelmed" and unable to cope with the numbers of sick and malnourished children needing help.

"We are appealing to the president to listen, and to look at the situation, we are saying 'accept our help today and let's discuss the details of how we work together later'," Allie said.

There was no immediate response from the government.

At the weekend, Niger's health minister, Issa Lamine, had repeated the government's criticism of the French charity, accusing it of deliberately misrepresenting the number of malnourished children to obtain more funds for its work.

In comments broadcast by state radio, Lamine described the situation at Maradi as "not dramatic" and said Niger's health authorities could handle it.

"Let MSF/France leave, it's up to the state to put in place the necessary means to deal with its people's health," he said.

MSF President Allie directly contradicted the minister's version, calling the situation "very worrying" and saying Niger authorities did not have the resources to deal with it.

The government's own studies describe Maradi, a densely-populated region around 600 km (370 miles) east of the capital Niamey and which borders with Nigeria to the south, as the region with the highest poverty levels in the country.

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(Additional reporting and writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Alistair Thomson and Richard Balmforth)


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