JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African soldiers joined police in operations around Johannesburg on Thursday to help end attacks on African immigrants that have killed at least 42 people.
Troops backed police in early morning raids and air force helicopters patrolled Alexandra township after President Thabo Mbeki approved army intervention to quell unrest that has threatened to destabilize Africa’s largest economy.
At least 25,000 people have been forced from their homes in 11 days of attacks by mobs that accuse immigrants of taking jobs and fuelling crime. Police say 550 people have been injured in the attacks and 519 arrested.
Mozambique said more than 10,000 of its people had fled back to the country.
Police, supported by soldiers, conducted early morning raids on three dormitory hostels near Johannesburg, the first army involvement to stop the attacks.
Firearms and ammunition were seized and 28 men were arrested. None were immediately linked to the violence, police spokeswoman Sally de Beer said.
The attacks have increased political instability at a time of power shortages and disaffection over Mbeki’s pro-business policies. Soaring food and fuel prices helped push tensions to breaking point.
“It is another blow -- although I wouldn’t advise panicking at this point in time,” said BNP Paribas strategist Elizabeth Gruie of the attacks. “We have to see how the government can deal with that in the very short term.”
The deputy leader of the ruling African National Congress, Kgalema Motlanthe, criticized the police delay in responding to the violence which erupted in Alexandra township on May 11 and spread rapidly.
“The delay encouraged people in similar environments to wage similar attacks against people who came from our sister countries on the continent,” Motlanthe said at an international media industry conference in Johannesburg.
“We are confronted by one of the ugliest incidents in the post-apartheid era”.
Anti-foreigner violence flared up late on Thursday evening in the city of Cape Town where 410 people, mostly foreigners including Zimbabweans and Somalians, were evacuated from the Du Noon squatter camp, about 20 kms (12 miles) north of the city.
Police Superintendant Billy Jones said six people were treated for minor injuries. There were no reports of fatalities in the violence which saw dozens of foreign-owned shops looted and burned.
The Dakar-based Pan-African human rights organization RADDHO condemned the “blind violence” shown against migrants.
It said Mbeki’s government “had not been able to anticipate these grave events and had been slow to take rigorous and firm measures to prevent the massacre of African migrants”.
TV images of migrants being attacked had “tarnished the image of the continent”, RADDHO said in a statement.
Mozambique said 10,047 migrants and their families had returned from South Africa since the violence broke out.
“The number is likely to increase in the next days as long as violence unfolds in South Africa,” Deputy Immigration Director Leonardo Boby told Reuters in Maputo.
The South African currency fell sharply earlier this week on the back of the violence. The rand was firmer on Thursday at 7.6695 to the U.S. dollar.
The biggest group of immigrants come from Zimbabwe. An estimated three million have fled economic collapse at home.
Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai visited Alexandra on Thursday and met Zimbabweans sheltering at the police station.
One refugee said he was considering going home despite the fact that in Zimbabwe he would have to face hyperinflation, shortages of food and an upsurge of political violence since disputed March 29 elections.
“I’m too scared,” said Samuel Dhliwayo, a 30-year-old Zimbabwean who worked as a painter.
(Additional reporting by Charles Mangwiro in Maputo, Gordon Bell and Barry Moody in Johannesburg; Editing by Marius Bosch and Matthew Tostevin)