BULAWAYO, 21 Jul 2005 (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.
In a strongly worded statement issued on Thursday the clergy said: "The removal of the poor, innocent, weak, voiceless and vulnerable members of society by riot police in the middle of the night was uncalled for and unnecessary. It is inhumane, brutal and insensitive, and in total disregard of human rights and dignity.
"These people are not criminals but bona fide citizens of this nation. It seems the crime they committed is that they are poor."
Reverend Raymond Motsi, the spokesperson for a coalition of church groups, told IRIN that facilities at the camp could cater for a maximum of 300 people.
"It is worrying to think how overcrowded these places are and since we have been banned from the camp, their needs are not catered for," Motsi pointed out.
Information minister Tichaona Jokonya has refused to comment on the latest round of evictions.
Zimbabwe has been widely condemned for its destruction of informal settlements, but has defended the move, saying it was aimed at rooting out criminal elements.
An estimated 375,000 people have been affected by the "cleanup" programme.
Despite a public announcement on Sunday that the government had halted the demolitions, the programme is still underway in some parts of the country.
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