More than 400 Mozambicans have been deported from South Africa, after authorities launched a nationwide operation targeting illegal immigrants in the country, officials said.

Oldemiro Baloi, Mozambique's foreign and cooperation minister, said his government was surprised by the deportations.

"We expected to hold talks with the South Africans to discuss the problem, but we just saw people being arrested," Baloi said.

The deportations come weeks after anti-foreigner attacks in South Africa left at least eight people dead, including at least one Mozambican national.

The official death toll is seven with South Africans authorities claiming the murder of one Mozambican man was a case of criminality and not xenophobia-related. 

Protests have taken place in Mozambique over the poor treatment of their citizens in neighbouring South Africa [EPA]

Some of the returned Mozambicans said on Saturday that they were arrested and taken to a detention centre when they were found in South Africa without proper documents. 

In mid-May, authorities launched a joint operation between the police, Ministry of Home Affairs and the army, targeting undocumented foreign nationals across the country. Human Rights groups and activists have described Operation Myala, that has resulted in at least 750 arrests so far, as "state xenophobia".

On Saturday, Zimbabwean activist Elinor Sisulu described the operation as a kind of "ethnic cleansing".

"Any state operation which was the image of cleaning or cleansing I find very disturbing, and I think the timing of it is absolutely unfortunate. Even if there was any merit in the operation, the timing [of Operation Fiela] is completely wrong," Sisulu told IOL media.

"There's been ethnic cleansing. In Rwanda, there was talk of cleaning out 'cockroaches' and I've actually heard people talking about cleaning out [here]."

Mozambicans deported said they been arrested when they were found without the proper documents.

"The police first asked for my ID, which I didn't have," said Jose Macuacua, who said he was not allowed to gather his belongings before he was taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre.

There he met dozens of other immigrants from other southern African countries, like Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

Macuacua, 26, said he entered South Africa illegally when guards at a border post failed to check if he had a passport. He lived in South Africa for two years, selling mobile phone SIM cards, he said.

Another Mozambican, Maria da Gloria Mathe, said she and her husband lived in the city of Rustenburg, in the South African platinum mining area, for four years, where they sold clothes.

"We collected what we could in a hurry, because the police were standing at the door of our shop," said Mathe.

While South African officials condemned the violence, they have also sought to address complaints that immigrants living in the country illegally are taking employment opportunities from South Africans.

Source: Agencies