Members of President Robert Mugabe's cabinet angrily disputed a claim by senior Zimbabwe civil servant that the country is running out of corn.  A growing number of people in Zimbabwe are complaining food is in short supply or too expensive.

Zimbabwe's grain marketing board, the only legal cereals trader in the country, will not reveal how much corn the country has left and there is no other source of verifiable information on Zimbabwe's food stocks.

But last week, permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry, Simon Pazvakavambwa, told a meeting of corporate executives, that despite continuing imports of corn from South Africa, Zimbabwe has only about three weeks' supply left and, in his words, "if we are not careful, there will be no food on the table next year."

Cabinet Minister Didymus Mutasa, one of Mr. Mugabe's most trusted colleagues, reacted angrily to the secretary's dire predictions.  He told the state press that substantial imports of corn from South Africa are in progress and that no one would starve. 

The World Food Program (WFP) in Johannesburg says the Zimbabwe government has indicated it is buying more than a million tons of corn from South Africa.  The WFP says it does not know if the grain is on its way.  It estimates that about 40 percent of emergency food aid to southern Africa will have to go to Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe consumes up to 100,000 tons of corn a month.

Michael Huggins, spokesperson for WFP in South Africa said that, although the agency does not yet have an agreement with Mr. Mugabe's government on food distribution, it hopes to begin soon.

President Mugabe said earlier Zimbabwe harvested a bumper crop of corn last year and would need no imports in the foreseeable future.  He told the U.N. to stop handing out food except to about one million people in targeted groups, such as children orphaned by AIDS.

Zimbabwe's agriculture, once a principal source of export revenue, has declined sharply in recent year, mainly due to droughts, poor government decision-making and the disastrous land redistribution program under which millions of hectares of arable land were taken from white farmers and handed to supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Meanwhile, a growing number of people in Zimbabwe are complaining corn meal, the country's staple food, is growing increasingly scarce and, if available at all, is priced beyond their reach.