Johannesburg (AFP) May 21, 2008
South African President Thabo Mbeki called in troops Wednesday to halt attacks on foreigners as the death toll from more than a week of violence nearly doubled and violence began to spread.
A statement from his office said Mbeki had agreed to a request from the police for the involvement of the army as it emerged that 42 people were now known to have died.
"President Mbeki has approved a request from the South African Police Service for the involvement of the South African National Defence Force in stopping ongoing attacks on foreign nationals in Gauteng," the statement said, referring to a province which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
While Mbeki's office did not give details on the nature of the army's role, national police spokeswoman Sally de Beer said they would provide a support role rather than take over.
"We do not see them performing policing but rather acting in a back-up capacity," she told AFP. The army had equipment "that we might need for special operations" such as helicopters, she added.
Defence ministry spokesman Sam Mkhwanazi said there would be no deployment on Wednesday night but that troops would be in strife-hit areas "as soon as possible."
The violence has largely been concentrated in and around Johannesburg, the country's economic hub.
"The death toll has risen to 42, 400 people have been arrested, and 16,000 people have been displaced," provincial police spokesman Govindsamy Mariemuthoo told AFP.
Previously police said 22 had been killed since violence began early last week in the township of Alexandra.
While the violence had previously been limited to Gauteng, reports of looting in the eastern city of Durban and the rural Mpumalanga province undermined hopes the unrest could be contained.
Superintendent Phindile Radebe, police spokeswoman in the eastern KwaZulu Natal province, said that a Nigerian-owned business had been one of the targets of a mob in Durban suburb Umbilo.
"A mob of (some) 200 were gathering on the streets carrying bottles and knobkerries (wooden clubs), busy attacking people on the streets," she told AFP.
"They attacked one of the taverns there believed to be owned by Nigerians."
In northeastern Mpumalanga, police said businesses owned by foreigners had been looted overnight in the Leslie and Embalenhle townships.
"They looted six tuck shops and burnt three. Some belonged to Zimbabweans and some to Somalis," a police officer told the SAPA news agency.
The foreigners, most of whom have fled economic meltdown in neighbouring Zimbabwe, have been blamed for sky-high rates of crime in South Africa as well as depriving locals of jobs.
The unofficial unemployment rate in South Africa is believed to be about 40 percent.
Human Rights Commission chairman Jodi Kollapen told AFP that the authorities would face a difficult task re-integrating immigrants who had been driven from their homes.
"There is no way you can re-integrate people into communities if the community remains hostile to them, and those who were evicted continue to feel insecure and intimidated about going back.
"They (locals) will have achieved the objective of driving foreigners out of the country."
Police said Wednesday they had arrested four community leaders in Germiston on charges of incitement.
"The Germiston police have made a breakthrough in the xenophobic attacks that have plagued their area since Saturday by arresting four community leaders at Dukathole informal settlement this afternoon," said a police spokesman.
Meanwhile, the damage to the country's reputation from the violence -- reminiscent of that seen in townships during the whites-only apartheid era -- took its toll on currency markets, with the rand dropping against the dollar and the euro.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told reporters that the problems in South Africa were all the more surprising given the country's struggle with apartheid.
"South Africa was the last African country to gain its independence. Along its bumpy road to independence, South Africans were scattered all over the continent, including Kenya.
"We gave them tremendous and admirable hospitality (...) The last country anybody would imagine would engage in xenophobia is South Africa."
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