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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

22,000 Arrested in Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwean police have arrested more than 22,000 people as a fierce blitz on illegal stores and shantytowns gathers pace, sending homeless people fleeing for the countryside, the state Herald newspaper said on Wednesday. President Robert Mugabe's government says the campaign is meant to stamp out black market trading and other crime in slums around Harare and other cities.

Police have used sledgehammers and bulldozers to demolish thousands of illegal shacks and torched others, leaving residents scrambling to secure their possessions before their homes and businesses are destroyed. Many of those displaced by the crackdown are seeking to return to their family homes in the countryside, although a desperate fuel shortage caused by Zimbabwe's economic crisis has made transport difficult.

"We have so far arrested a total of 22,735 people," Assistant Police Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena told the newspaper.

Zimbabwe has seen its economy contract by some 30 percent over the past five years and is reeling from shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and other key commodities amid sharp drops in international investment and tourism.

Critics say the crisis has been caused in large part by Mugabe's controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks -- a move they say all but destroyed the key commercial agricultural sector.