The human rights group Amnesty International says it believes the Zimbabwean government will use food and fear of hunger as political weapons during next year's parliamentary election. The group has published a new report saying Zimbabwe's ruling party has been manipulating the country's food crisis for political gain.

Amnesty International says the Zimbabwean government is exploiting its near-total control over the supply of corn and wheat, the country's staple foods.

Amnesty International researcher Audrey Gaughran says she fears the manipulation of food will only get worse as the election gets closer.

"We also believe there is a possibility, quite a strong possibility given the history in Zimbabwe, of the manipulation of food around elections, that in the run-up to the elections in March 2005, that there will be manipulation of food or of people's fear of hunger in order to force them to vote for the ruling party. And that's our concern about the run-up to the elections about food," Audrey Gaughran says.

The Zimbabwean government says it had a record harvest this year and no longer needs the international food aid that has flowed into the country for the last several years, during a regional food shortage. So the World Food Program was forced to stop its large-scale emergency distributions in March. The U.N. agency had previously been feeding about 40 percent of the population.

At the same time, the government prevented a U.N. team from finishing its assessment of the country's food needs, so nobody really knows how much food there is in Zimbabwe right now. But Amnesty International's sources indicate that the harvest is roughly half of what the government claims.

Amnesty's 69-page report, titled Power and Hunger, cites a complex web of factors contributing to Zimbabwe's current food insecurity, including drought and some international donors who refused to allow food they donated to be distributed in areas where newly resettled farmers had benefited from the controversial land reform program.

But the most severe criticism is reserved for the Zimbabwean government, and especially its Grain Marketing Board, which controls all grain imports and most domestic sales.

Amnesty International says for several years, the Grain Marketing Board has limited the amount of corn sold in areas of the country where the political opposition is strongest, and at times people have been required to show ruling party membership cards in order to buy food.

Amnesty International's Audrey Gaughran says the implementation of Zimbabwe's land reform program has increased the country's dependence on food from abroad.

"The way it was implemented resulted in a lot of disruption and chaos on the ground, agricultural land not being planted, including during the period of worst food insecurity in 2002 when much of southern Africa was experiencing drought," Audrey Gaughran says. "During that time, fertile land in Zimbabwe was not planted, and that was a result of the way in which the land reform program was being implemented."

The report calls on Zimbabwe to ensure that food aid is distributed to everyone on the basis of need, regardless of political affiliation or other factors. It issued a similar call to the international community.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have repeatedly urged Zimbabwe to change its policies, but those calls have been routinely ignored or ridiculed. The Zimbabwean government has not responded to the latest Amnesty report, but in the past has accused the group of bias and of being a tool of the West.