Nepal faces security problems and food shortages in the critical period before elections in November aimed at sealing peace after a decade-long Maoist rebellion, U.N. officials said on Thursday.

Nepal's Maoists signed a peace deal last November and have joined an interim government that is preparing for November 22 elections for a constituent assembly to decide the fate of the monarchy in Nepal and the country's political future.

But violence continues, especially in the south, and security remains a problem throughout the country with police demoralized, the U.N. envoy in Nepal, Ian Martin, told a news conference after briefing the U.N. Security Council.

Two U.N. food agencies also warned on Thursday that natural disasters in 2006 and 2007 had severely hurt crop production in Nepal, leaving 42 of the country's 75 districts facing food shortages.

This is particularly troubling during this highly sensitive post-conflict period, Richard Ragan, World Food Program (WFP) representative in Nepal, said in a statement.

A U.N. report said the postponement of elections initially planned to take place by mid-June had tested the unity of Nepal's eight political parties and failure to ensure a credible election within a realistic and well-planned period could have a much more serious impact.

Presenting the report to the Security Council, Martin said he emphasized the very considerable challenges that still remain, especially in terms of security.

He said international monitors charged with inspecting camps housing former Maoist combatants had faced obstacles in verifying if those in the camps included children or recruits who joined after the peace process began last year.

In June U.N. monitors visited one camp and found child soldiers as well as new recruits. They have since been prevented from visiting the other main camps.

Martin said the peace process was complicated by an assertive campaign of traditionally marginalized groups in Nepal to insist that they must be fairly represented.

He said it was crucial to reconcile groups such as the Madhesi in the southern plains of Terai, a narrow strip of fertile plains considered to be impoverished Nepal's food basket and home to nearly half of its 26 million people.

He played down a Maoist threat to quit the government, saying the dispute appeared to be close to resolution.

The WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Nepal faced a 225,000-tonne food grain shortage for 2006/2007, compared to a deficit of just 23,000 tonnes the previous year.

Continued high levels of food insecurity could destabilize the peace process, a joint WFP and FAO statement said.