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SAfrica faces financial claim over anti immigrant unrest

JOHANNESBURG, May 28 – South Africa faced the prospect on Wednesday of a compensation claim from Nigeria over anti-immigrant violence, as aid groups struggled to cope with the tens of thousands of displaced victims.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, denounced South African President Thabo Mbeki for his decision to attend a conference in Japan, as the violence which has so killed 56 people spread to another province.

Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe announced late on Tuesday that they would press South Africa for compensation for its citizens caught up in the xenophobic attacks in the country.

"Following instructions from the foreign ministry, the Nigerian mission has already compiled the list of Nigerians affected during the mayhem with the purpose of seeking compensation from South African government for loss of properties and physical injuries," he told journalists in Abuja.

While no Nigerian was among those killed in the attacks, many have lost their properties and others have had their shops looted, said Maduekwe.

Despite the attacks, Nigeria was still committed to strengthening links between the two countries, he added.

South African aid groups meanwhile were struggling to help tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes in the two weeks of violence.

Nomfundo Mogapi, a programme manager for the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the number displaced was now approaching the six-figure mark.

"According to the different reports we collected, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 people who left their homes," he told AFP.

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At least 30,000 had been forced out in Johannesburg, 20,000 in the Cape Town area and a further 20,000 in the eastern coastal city of Durban.

The focus in the next few days was expected to turn on how to persuade those sheltering in community centres to return to their shacks, many of which have been burned to the ground.

"It’s only a very few that are going back, because they are very afraid," said Mogapi. Foreigners have been blamed for high levels of crime and a lack of job opportunities in the country.

The violence spread to another province Tuesday with the petrol bombing of a Chinese-owned business in Eastern Cape province, undermining claims by the government just a day earlier that the unrest had been contained.

Mbeki’s political opponents meanwhile made the most of his decision to attend the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

Mbeki had managed to compound the sense of remoteness by flying half-way round the world for the conference, said Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

"I have said the president should have been home. He should have had a hands on approach and he should have intervened much earlier with what is going on," she told AFP by phone from Cape Town.

Bantu Holomisa, president of the smaller United Democratic Movement opposition party, contrasted Mbeki’s response to the crisis to that of his predecessor, anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

"Mr Mandela would have the following day been to townships and addressed the people and gone to the people and addressed the nation," Holomisa told AFP.

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"The nation has a right to say ‘we were longing for a voice from the highest office but it didn’t come when it needed it’."

Mbeki delivered a rare televised national address on Sunday condemning the "shameful acts" of "savagery" and "barbarity", but it was criticised as too little, too late by South Africa’s press.

Mbeki only made the broadcast after days of mounting criticism of his inaction. Commentators also said that his speech had failed to address some of the underlying causes of the violence such as high unemployment.

Up to three million Zimbabweans are now believed to be in South Africa having fled the economic meltdown in their homeland, and they are frequently accused of taking jobs from locals.

The Sowetan newspaper contrasted the response of large sectors of the public, who have donated food, blankets and clothing to those displaced by the violence, to the response of the stay-away Mbeki and his government.

"Shocked citizens have been pouring onto the streets to express their disgust and offer what comfort they can. But where are our leaders?" said the mass-market daily.

While thousands of mainly Zimbabwean and Mozambicans have camped out in police stations and community centres since violence started in mid-May, many more have fled back to their homeland.

Mozambique said at the weekend that 20,000 of its nationals had fled the violence. The Red Cross said Monday it had prepared for the arrival of up to 25,000 Zimbabweans in Zambia.

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