Demolition of Zimbabwean homes kills two children

Two Zimbabwean children were crushed to death during the demolition of illegal houses this month in a government crackdown that has made tens of thousands of impoverished city dwellers homeless and prompted an unprecedented international outcry.

Zimbabwe's official Herald newspaper reported yesterday that a one-and-a-half year-old child died after being buried beneath the rubble of bulldozed buildings in Harare's Chitungwiza township on Sunday. Another baby died earlier this month in similar circumstances.

"If the reports are simply half true... this is a situation of serious international concern, and no government that subscribes to human rights and democracy should allow this kind of thing to go on effectively under their noses," the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told journalists.

The news of the deaths emerged as the United Nations and the African Union came under mounting pressure to take urgent action against the Zimbabwe government's Operation Murambatsvina, or "Restore Order".

An unprecedented coalition of more than 200 African and international NGOs urged the organisations to intervene to save thousands more from destitution. They called President Mugabe's mass evictions "a grave violation of international human rights law and a disturbing affront to human dignity".

The groups, including Amnesty International and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, released smuggled video footage showing hundreds of thousands of people on the move from shanty towns after police torched and bulldozed their homes. Condemning the evictions, in which more than 300,000 people have lost their homes, the NGOs urged Nigerian President Obasanjo, as chair of the AU, to put the crisis on the agenda of the AU Assembly in July.

"The AU and UN simply cannot ignore such an unprecedented, wide-ranging appeal on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe, particularly from African civil society," the coalition said in a joint statement. "African solidarity should be with the people of Africa ­ not their repressive leaders."

The appointment of a UN special envoy to investigate the destruction was welcomed by the groups. But they called for the UN to publicly condemn the evictions and to take immediate action to prevent them.