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25,000 flee South Africa xenophobic violence

The Red Cross reported Saturday that it was caring for 25,000 immigrants who fled their homes after two weeks of attacks left 42 dead. Earlier, patrolling South African troops shot a man dead while attempting to quell the riots. (Story: N. Rushworth)

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The Red Cross in South Africa said Saturday it was caring for 25,000 displaced people following nearly two weeks of anti-immigrant violence amid emerging evidence of a humanitarian crisis.

The new figures came as the army said it had shot dead a man in a Johannesburg township during joint operations with the police aimed at quelling the tide of unrest.

"The Red Cross is helping over 25,000 people spread around 21 locations, mainly in Johannesburg," Red Cross director for southern Africa, Francoise Le Goff, told AFP.

"The situation has deteriorated since now it (the violence) is starting in Durban and Cape Town."

Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF - Medecins Sans Frontieres) also warned of the danger of illness among the displaced and said the government needed to make a decision on how victims would be cared for.

Police reported a generally calmer situation across the country Saturday amid signs the vicious attacks of the past two weeks, in which armed mobs have purged some poor neighbourhoods of immigrants, were abating.

At least 42 people have been killed and more than 500 arrested since the unrest broke out in a Johannesburg slum area nearly two weeks ago before spreading to seven of the country's nine provinces.

President Thabo Mbeki, facing increasing criticism of his handling of the crisis, bowed to pressure to call in troops on Wednesday after a request from the embattled police force.

The army, which has stressed throughout that it is supporting the police,  announced Saturday that soldiers had killed a man in a slum area east of Johannesburg in a clash on Friday.

"We unfortunately had an incident where a member of the public was shot when he pointed a firearm at a soldier. He was shot dead," army spokesman General Kwena Mangope told AFP.

"A male was allegedly assaulting a woman. Our men confronted him and then he pointed a firearm at them," Mangope explained.

The latest incident was an unfortunate echo of the country's apartheid past when troops were frequently called upon to help police put down civil unrest by blacks in poor townships during protests against the country's white regime.

Soldiers were sent on to Johannesburg's streets on Thursday for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. They have been providing logistical support and back-up during search and arrest operations.

National police spokesman Sally de Beer told AFP that a few outbreaks of xenophobic violence had been reported overnight in North West province, but the hotspot of violence around Johannesburg had cooled.

"It looks like it's calming down," she said.

Nevertheless, local police in Durban reported a few flare-ups in the eastern city while Johannesburg police said several shacks in a slum area had been set alight overnight and a fight had broken out between locals and foreigners.

Cape Town police reported calm in their area after the first clashes in the southern coastal city on Thursday evening.

The government made its first public apology on Friday for the attacks, which have resulted in thousands fleeing the country.

"We are very much concerned and apologise for all the inconveniences that the incidents have caused," South Africa's Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said during a trip to Nigeria.

Neighbouring Mozambique has declared a national disaster and state media reported on Saturday that about 15,000 Mozambicans had returned home.

Foreigners in South Africa, many of whom have fled economic meltdown in neighbouring Zimbabwe, are being blamed for sky-high crime rates and depriving locals of jobs.

The unrest is also seen as a result of policy failures to address critical housing shortages, illegal immigration and the poverty-ridden conditions in the slum areas that surround South Africa's cities.

MSF told AFP on Saturday that they were seeing fewer cases of violence-related injuries, but increasing numbers of people needing treatment for respiratory infections and diarrhoea.

"There is really a need for a decision on where they should be accommodated," the organisation's programme director in South Africa Muriel Cornelius told AFP.

"You still have people with no roof above their heads, sleeping outside under the stars with just a blanket."

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