by Fran Blandy
JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - A wave of violence against foreigners in South Africa has forced 13,000 people to flee their homes, the UN said Tuesday, as President Thabo Mbeki pleaded for an end to a "shameful" show of xenophobia.
As calls grew for the army to be sent in to quell the worst unrest since the end of apartheid, the scale of the damage was becoming apparent, both to the victims and the so-called Rainbow Nation's new reputation for racial tolerance.
As police revealed the number of arrests had now risen to around 300, the United Nations' International Organisation for Migration gave the first figures on the numbers who have been displaced.
"Thirteen thousand people had to flee their homes to seek refuge in churches and parish centres, and most didn't take anything with them," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told AFP at its Geneva headquarters.
As well as the numbers made homeless, 23 are now believed to have died since violence first flared in the central Johannesburg township of Alexandra last week and then spread in other impoverished areas of the country's economic hub.
While the overall situation appeared Tuesday to have calmed down slightly, tension was palpable in many townships where mobs armed with axes and machetes could still be seen roaming the streets.
Calling for a halt to "these shameful and criminal acts", Mbeki said South Africa was bound together with other Africans and was not "an island separate from the rest of the continent".
"Citizens from other countries on the African continent and beyond are as human as we are and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity," added Mbeki, who spent much of the apartheid era in exile in neighbouring states.
While the South African leader vowed police would bring the situation under control, the country's biggest labour union and main rights body said the situation now was so serious that the army needed to be deployed.
"We have to look at whether we should at least be willing to talk about whether the army should be deployed," Jody Kollapen, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, told AFP.
"It sounds drastic but we are dealing with a situation that is volatile, that has proven to be highly unpredictable and quite devastating in how it has played out."
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) also called for military intervention "to curb the terrible situation in which poor immigrants and local residents to some extent find themselves".
On a tour of one of the worst-hit areas, Security Minister Charles Nqakula told reporters the police force was going to be "very hard" on perpetrators.
"They are going to deal with this in a very hard and precise fashion because we do not want this kind of thing to spill over and affect many of our areas."
In Reiger Park informal settlement where several people were set alight by angry residents on Monday, an AFP photographer saw police fire rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of nearly 400, wielding machetes and sticks, after a tense stand-off.
Police in the inner city dispersed about 200 Nigerians, also carrying machetes and sticks, who were threatening to retaliate and attack South Africans.
While the official death toll remained at 22, the SAPA news agency reported another man was killed and several severely assaulted in the Joe Slovo informal settlement.
Many South Africans have blamed immigrants for high levels of crime and unemployment. An estimated three million Zimbabweans are believed to have crossed into South Africa to escape the economic meltdown in their homeland.
The violence first erupted in the Alexandra township on Monday last week before spreading to other areas of the city.
The premier of Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, said police should assess the situation and decide whether troops were needed.
"We welcome the decision to deploy additional police in affected areas in the province. I hope this will go a long way to bringing the situation under control without having to involve the army," said Mbhazima Shilowa.