President Robert Mugabe has congratulated police for a so-called urban renewal campaign that has left up to 1,5-million people homeless and sparked outrage around the world.
Police have torched and bulldozed tens of thousands of homes in the month-long drive to destroy townships, street markets -Ã¢â‚¬’ and even vegetable gardens planted by impoverished city dwellers at a time of acute food shortages.
Addressing a police graduation ceremony on Thursday, Mugabe said the campaign known as Operation Murambatsvina, or Drive Out Trash, was wiping out havens for criminals and black market profiteers.
State radio quoted him on Friday as saying he was ”happy that a new breed of organised entrepreneurs will emerge”.
Mugabe’s political opposition, whose base is among the urban poor, says the campaign is aimed at punishing its supporters for voting against the ruling party in recent parliamentary elections.
More than 200 international human rights and civic groups demanded on Thursday that Zimbabwe stop the campaign.
They urged Zimbabwe’s neighbours to take action against the country at an upcoming African Union meeting in Libya.
Their plea was echoed by Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday, who said Mugabe remained in power because of the support of some of the countries around him.
Foreign ministers from the world’s leading industrialised nations — including Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and United States Secretary of State Condoleezza — also condemned the campaign on Thursday as an outrage.
Mugabe, however, was silent on the criticism.
”The government is fully behind the clean up and applauded the police for ensuring the success of the operation,” Mugabe told about 300 recruits in Friday’s radio broadcast.
Police commissioner Augustine Chihuri was quoted in the same broadcast reporting a 20% drop in crimes such as housebreaking and car theft since the start of the campaign on May 19.
About 46Ã‚Â 000 people have been arrested, he said, most of them informal traders the government accuses of sabotaging the failing economy.
Human rights groups, however, say the drive has caused unprecedented suffering among those most in need of government protection — the poor, the elderly and the sick — many of whom have been left out in the cold.
Catholic bishops have described the campaign as ”a war against the poor”.
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change has compared it the actions of Cambodia’s former Pol Pot regime, that forced townspeople to the countryside for political ”re-education”.
Opposition lawmakers forced an emergency debate on the operation in Zimbabwe’s Parliament late on Thursday.
Edwin Mushoriwa, who represents one of the capital’s worst affected townships, said the rights of the poor are being trampled by arbitrary arrests of licensed vendors, the seizure of their produce and destruction of homes.
He said more than 80% of the urban poor rely on informal trading and repair work to survive, and now there is ”nothing left to speak of” for them.
Walter Mzembe, a lawmaker for the governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front said such hardships were a necessary price for a promised economic turnaround.
”These are just temporary things and they are necessary for a long-term turnaround,” he said. – Sapa-AP