JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The United Nations harshly criticized Zimbabwe yesterday for creating a "disastrous" humanitarian crisis through a vast slum-clearing project that has left 700,000 people homeless or jobless in the middle of winter.
The comments in the report included unusually harsh criticism of President Robert G. Mugabe, who has been in office since 1980. But it is unclear whether the condemnation will loosen his hold on power, even as the country sinks further into poverty.
The report, released yesterday, sharply disputes Mugabe's view that the large-scale demolition around Harare and other cities was a necessary urban cleanup drive.
"While purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities," the destruction "was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering," concludes the report, based on a two-week fact-finding trip by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, a Tanzanian who is director of the U.N. Human Settlements Program.
The campaign, which began May 19, included the bulldozing of huts, shops and market stalls, with no compensation for those evicted. People were left without shelter as temperatures dipped to near freezing.
Mugabe maintained that "Operation Restore Order" was an urban renewal program that would clean up the country's cities by curbing illegal building and businesses.
Several people were reported killed during the removals, which opposition leaders say were targeted at city dwellers who largely voted against Mugabe's party in March parliamentary elections. The demolitions have ended, and the government has pledged over $300 million to build 1.2 million houses, despite doubts about its ability to find the money.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a statement that the government should "ensure that those who orchestrated this ill-advised policy are held fully accountable for their actions."
Zimbabwe's foreign minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, said the report was biased and wrong, according to wire service accounts. "The report described the operation in vastly judgmental language which clearly demonstrates its inbuilt bias against the operation," he said at a news conference in Harare.
The report could affect diplomacy in the region by increasing pressure on South African President Thabo Mbeki to criticize Mugabe.
Mugabe recently asked South Africa to lend his country up to $1 billion to keep the economy afloat. As the region's most powerful leader, Mbeki is thought to have considerable influence over his Zimbabwean counterpart. But Mbeki has been reluctant to pressure a leader who aided the struggle against apartheid.
"Mbeki does not want to be the one who has thrown out Mugabe in the eyes of the continent," said Ivor Jenkins of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "In the eyes of the world, he would have lots of praise. Mbeki first wants to seek the love of the continent."
Most Zimbabweans "seem not to be angry enough or hungry enough" to rise up against the government, Jenkins said. "South Africa is the only one who can push him there."
In recent months, Zimbabwe's economy has accelerated its decline. Unemployment is estimated at over 70 percent. Grocery store shelves are ill-stocked. Fuel has grown so scarce that Air Zimbabwe, the national carrier, has canceled flights.
The government devalued the currency by 40 percent this week to 17,500 Zimbabwean dollars for every U.S. dollar. Three years ago, the official exchange rate was about 50 to the U.S. dollar.
"The humanitarian consequences of Operation Restore Order are enormous," the U.N. report said, urging Mugabe to permit international assistance for those most affected. "It will take several years before the people and society as a whole can recover."
It continued, "Education for thousands of school age children has been disrupted. Many of the sick, including those with HIV and AIDS, no longer have access to care."
David Coltart, a member of parliament who belongs to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said the report will carry great weight because the author is African.
"It makes it very difficult for African leaders to not stand up to this regime," Coltart said.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwean police raided several churches this week in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, according to news reports. Police rounded up hundreds of people who had sought refuge in churches after authorities razed their homes.