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UN envoy to probe razings in Zimbabwe

Mugabe defends urban 'cleanup'

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- An envoy for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Zimbabwe yesterday to investigate a government-sponsored campaign that has destroyed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.

Hours before the arrival of Anna Tibaijuka, head of the seven-member delegation, a state-run newspaper reported that the government was finishing the campaign dubbed Operation Murambatsvina, or ''Drive Out Trash."

The Sunday Mail report was dismissed by the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. Party spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi said the destruction of shantytowns continued unabated during the weekend in the southern border town of Beitbridge.

Since the campaign was launched May 19, police have torched and bulldozed tens of thousands of shacks, market stalls, even the vegetable gardens planted by the urban poor at a time of acute food shortages. Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans affected range between 300,000 and 1.5 million.

President Robert Mugabe says the campaign is necessary to fight crime and maintain health standards in Zimbabwe's cities. But the opposition, which has its stronghold among the urban poor, says the operation is intended to punish the party's supporters, who voted against the government in recent parliamentary elections.

Mugabe told his party that he had agreed to meet with Annan's envoy ''to enable the secretary general to understand and appreciate what we are trying to do."

Tibaijuka was expected to meet with Mugabe early in the week, UN spokeswoman Katherine Anderson said. She also will tour towns and cities where the operation is taking place.

Also on the agenda are meetings with legislators, including the opposition, church leaders, and others who have been helping those affected.

Mugabe's government has sought to curb the independent media, and only state-accredited journalists were allowed to meet with Tibaijuka upon her arrival yesterday.

The government's campaign -- in which 42,000 people have been arrested, fined, or had their goods confiscated -- has provoked international outcry.

The independent Sunday Standard newspaper reported that at least six people have died -- including two children crushed under collapsing walls, two more children and a woman who died of pneumonia after being exposed to the winter cold, and a man who committed suicide.

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