The Zimbabwean government says it will have to provide food aid to some of its people, but denies U.S. estimates that half the population is in need of assistance. This is the first time the government is admitting some Zimbabweans need food assistance.

A report in the government-owned newspaper, The Herald, says the government estimate of 1.5 million people in need of food aid is far less than the figure claimed by the United States.

A report by the U.S.-sponsored Famine Early Warning System Network estimated that half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people would have no food by March. The Zimbabwean government denounced the report as part of what it called a destabilization campaign by the United States ahead of Zimbabwe's March elections.

The Herald report says the government has put aside about $7 million to feed the needy until March. It is anticipated that, by then, people will be starting to harvest this season's crops. The food will be bought from the state grain marketing board, which has a monopoly on the buying and selling of corn and wheat in the country.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson for agriculture, Renson Gasela, sees a link between the start of distribution of food just seven weeks before elections. He told VOA that people without ruling ZANU-PF cards would not qualify for food aid. As he put it, "It is nothing but vote-buying."

However, The Herald says the food will be distributed to people in exchange for work, under the government's food-for-work program.

The Zimbabwe government last year stopped all humanitarian organizations involved in food aid since 2000 from distributing aid, saying the country had enough food to feed its people.

Despite the claims of a bumper harvest, the government continues to import corn from neighboring South Africa. The South African Grain Information Service says, last week, Zimbabwe imported more than 13 tons of corn.