Story highlights

  • Joint operation between police, national defence force and Ministry of Home Affairs described as "crime-prevention clean-up"
  • Some local media reporting the number of arresteds likely exceeded 500
  • Raids come six weeks after anti-immigrant violence swept parts of Durban and Johannesburg

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Johannesburg, South Africa - South African police have arrested at least 400 foreign nationals, after police backed by the military raided several buildings, including a church housing refugees in central Johannesburg on Friday.

Katlego Mogale, a spokesperson for the South African Police Services described Friday's joint operation between police, the South African national defence force and the Ministry of Home Affairs in Johannesburg as a “crime-prevention clean-up" in which "several people (were) arrested for being illegal immigrants".

"Those being held at the [central] station are being verified by the Ministry of Home Affairs for their documentation," Mogale told Al Jazeera.

There were conflicting reports of the numbers detained by the police, with some local media reporting the number was likely higher than 500.

Mogale, the police spokesperson, would not confirm the number to Al Jazeera.

Witnesses said a large contingent of armed police officers descended on central Johannesburg on Friday morning, raiding a series of buildings, before removing scores of foreigners living in the Central Methodist Church on Pritchard Street.

The Methodist Church in South Africa is known for housing thousands of foreign nationals after the devastating xenophobic attacks in 2008 that killed 62 people. Since then, hundreds of foreign nationals, mostly Zimbabweans, continued to live in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg.

The raids on Friday come six weeks after a wave of anti-immigrant violence swept parts of Durban and Johannesburg. South African authorities have been accused of a sluggish response to the mobs that targeted foreign businesses and homes.

At least eight people were killed, though the South African government insists the death toll linked to xenophobia is seven after ruling that Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole's murder on April 18 was an act of criminality and not xenophobia.

Hundreds however were injured and thousands displaced, mostly around the sea-side city of Durban.

'State xenophobia'

Civil society were quick to condemn the Friday's raids, accusing the government of exercising 'state xenophobia'.

As news spread of the raids in the city, more than a 100 people assembled outside the Johannesburg Central Police Station in protest.

"On one hand they (the government) are asking foreigners in camps to return to their communities, and yet at the same time, they are targeting them in their homes," Gilles van Cutsem, MSF medical director in South Africa, said.

"The South African government is sending contradictory messages and foreigners are feeling targeted," Van Cutsem told Al Jazeera.

On Friday, George Chilonga, deputy consul general of Malawi embassy in Johannesburg, confirmed to Al Jazeera that the repatriation process of his country's citizens was now complete. Chilong said his government would be compiling a full assessment of the events and incidents on the ground.

Meanwhile, police said they arrested 29 people and confiscated up to $900,000 worth of illegal goods after a raid in Belville, near Cape Town, on Thursday.

Activists said another protest against the police was planned for Saturday.