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South African Clerics in Zimbabwe to Assess Clean-up Operation

A South African Council of Churches delegation and representatives of non-governmental and civic organizations are in Zimbabwe on a two-day visit to assess the government's crackdown on informal businesses and unapproved residential structures.

A three-person advance party arrived at Harare International Airport. Methodist Bishop Ivan Abrahams, a spokesman for the group, said the church leaders were disturbed by reports regarding Zimbabwe's clean-up campaign, which the government calls Operation Restore Order, and wanted to see for themselves.

"There has been a kind of parallel with what we have seen happening in South Africa with forced removals, the apartheid forced removals, that we have seen, where people are left destitute, without shelter and livelihoods," he said. "That is the message we have heard from our partners in civil society, and from churches here, and we are greatly concerned."

Bishop Abrahams said the churchmen would visit the Caledonia Transit Camp, where thousands of people whose homes were demolished are staying. The group also plans to meet with trade unions, civil society organizations and political leaders from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Bishop Abrahams said he was not sure if they would meet with President Robert Mugabe. But they are prepared to approach their own president, Thabo Mbeki, with their findings.

"If it means making certain recommendations to the South African government, and to our president, that, we will do, after we ourselves have been informed, and after we have seen what has happened," said Bishop Abrahams.

President Mbeki has been criticized for his quiet diplomacy policy toward alleged human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, state radio has announced that the operation to demolish illegal structures will be directed starting Monday at Harare's high-income suburbs. The police warned that unapproved structures, such as staff quarters or garages, could be demolished. The report quoted a police spokesperson as saying residents of the suburbs should tear down unauthorized buildings on their property and have approved construction plans ready to show police when they start their exercise.

The crackdown, launched on May 19 has been criticized both at home and abroad as a gross violation of human rights. The United Nations says about 200,000 Zimbabweans have been left homeless, and has called on the government to halt the forced evictions.

The government says the exercise aims to clean up urban areas, and deal with criminal activities, such as hoarding of scarce basic commodities for sale on the black market and illegal foreign currency dealings.