Some rural supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, say they are not allowed to buy grain from the only legal grain trader, because they are not members of President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party. 

Last year, Zimbabwe's government said it no longer needed international food aid. Human rights groups expressed concern that continuing food shortages in the country could be exploited by authorities ahead of the country's March 31 elections, since grain is distributed exclusively through a government agency.

The Matabeleland area is one of the regions of Zimbabwe where, human rights groups say, food insecurity is chronic. Pensioners living in two villages in the area southwest of Harare, say the ruling ZANU-PF Party has denied them food because they support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

These villagers say tribal leaders in their areas have taken the names of registered voters and threatened that their families will never get food again, if they vote for the opposition in the parliamentary elections.

The ZANU-PF candidate for the area, Andrew Langa, denies food distribution is based on politics.  He says everyone's vote is secret, and no tribal leaders are monitoring how people would vote during the general election next Thursday.

Jeslia Sibanda, who is 69 and disabled, says she was turned away from buying food last Sunday by ruling ZANU-PF officials.

"Food is there, but it is the hands of ZANU-PF,? she said.  ?I, for one, I am a known MDC supporter, and I have tried to force myself under difficult circumstances to get to the venue or the selling point, but once there, you are told point blank that the food is not meant for MDC supporters, but for ZANU-PF."

Zimbabwe's grain marketing board is the only legal cereal trader, and the government subsidizes the price of the staple food, maize.  People are increasingly hungry, since Mr. Mugabe told international donors last year that Zimbabwe did not need food aid. Ms. Sibanda says she relied on that aid.

"We were used to be assisted through the World Food Program, but, unfortunately, since it stopped, we only saw food from one source, and that was from the of hands ZANU-PF," she explained.

Million Ndlovu, 62, lives in a different village in the same Insiza voting district.  He says he paid upfront for maize from the government, but was not given the maize. He says that's because he is a known opposition supporter.

"In our area, we have a maize committee, which called us to the selling point to say, come and collect your maize, since you already paid,? he recalled. ?On our arrival there, we found that, on top of the heap of maize, was the district chairman of ZANU-PF, Mr. Simon Madongo, sitting on top of the heap, and he declared that the maize was going to be distributed to ZANU-PF members only, not to any of the MDC supporters."

Before a special election in late 2002, the World Food Program shut down its food store in Insiza, after several tons of food were stolen, allegedly by ZANU-PF supporters, who distributed the food to voters ahead of polling day.

Reports have been coming in for several months that food is again being used as a political weapon in areas where there are few crops. Amnesty International says it recently interviewed people in Matabeleland and two other regions, and found that opposition supporters had difficulty accessing maize.

USAID and the World Food Program fed up to 5.5 million people, or nearly half the population, until Mr. Mugabe told them to stop last year.  The final deliveries of food were made in December.

Agricultural analysts say only enough maize was planted this year to feed about a quarter of the population, and much of that has wilted because of poor rainfall.

The World Food Program says more than 40 percent of Zimbabwe's population of approximately 12 million is undernourished.