BULAWAYO, 21 July (IRIN) - Zimbabwean police on Thursday forcibly removed hundreds of homeless people from churches in Bulawayo and banned religious groups from providing humanitarian assistance to those seeking shelter at Hellensvale, a transit camp north of Zimbabwe's second city. The camp was set up as a temporary measure to house hundreds of desperate families who lost their homes in the government's crackdown on illegal settlements in urban areas. In a midnight raid police descended on churches in the city where more than 300 people were sheltering and escorted them to the camp, raising fears of overcrowding that could spark a humanitarian crisis. Church leaders, who were helping the homeless to relocate to Hellensvale, said they were saddened by the latest development and accused the government of a "total disregard of the law and perpetrating human rights violations". The clergy were also concerned that living conditions at the camp would to deteriorate, as they were instructed not to provide food to the displaced.
At least four clergymen were detained in Wednesday's raids in Bulawayo, which came ahead of the anticipated release of a U.N. report on the demolition campaign.
The government of President Robert Mugabe defends the campaign as a cleanup drive in overcrowded, crime-ridden slums. The opposition says it is aimed at breaking up its strongholds among the urban poor and forcing them into rural areas where they can be more easily controlled by chiefs sympathetic to the government.
Police raided nine churches in Bulawayo overnight, arresting between 50 and 100 people at each, said the Rev. Kevin Thompson of the city's Presbyterian Church.