"We saw about 450 state police officers and policemen from the Lusaka City Council destroying houses from about midnight on Friday until the early hours of today," one resident told Reuters news agency.

Opposition parties in Zambia often accuse senior members of the ruling party of taking bribes from people in exchange for land.

Levy Mwanawasa, the Zambian president, sacked Gladys Nyirongo, the lands minister, two weeks ago, after accusing her of handing out plots of land to her family.

Several senior ministry officials have been suspended on corruption charges involving land distribution.

Informal settlements

The government has said it intends to destroy all illegal and unplanned homes and shops, starting in Lusaka where many impoverished informal settlements infringe on roads, railways, power lines and government-owned land.

"We know very well the reason why we have illegal structures: Because local politicians are the ones who are giving that land illegally"

Henry Nachina,
co-ordinator of
the Land Alliance
Henry Nachina, co-ordinator of the Land Alliance, a Zambian non-governmental organisation that deals with land issues, told The Associated Press earlier this week that the situation was "scary" because people do not know how the government is going to proceed.

Nachina said he was hopeful that the government would avoid a "Zimbabwe-type" demolition where thousands are made homeless.

Zimbabwe received international condemnation in 2005 when police demolished shacks and shops run by poor urban residents in several Zimbabwean towns.

Nachina said that the government should not be punishing the people who build illegal settlements, but rather target politicians who hand out land to supporters without following city guidelines.

"We know very well the reason why we have illegal structures: Because local politicians are the ones who are giving that land illegally," he said.

Zambia won a major package of debt relief from foreign donors in 2005 but more than 70 per cent of the population remains in poverty, and statistics put formal unemployment at about 20 per cent.