South African police raided a church in Johannesburg late Wednesday night and took several hundred suspected illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into custody, church officials and other sources said. Many of those detained were soon released.
Witnesses accused the police of using excessive force in raiding the Central Methodist Church, allegedly breaking doors and windows in the operation and assaulting those living in the church and other buildings housing Zimbabwean refugees.
Verryn told AFP that police "came military-style and started raiding the street around the church and turned the church upside-down." He said they "basically vandalized my church, acted despicably, kicking anything that moved including pregnant women, children, and disabled people...it was a disgrace."
Police spokesman Bheki Mavundla told AFP that the raid had been ordered following the receipt of complaints of criminal activity from area residents and businesses.
The Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, a South African-based human rights group, condemned the action, saying there was no legal basis for the police to confiscate possessions.
Many were released early Thursday, but 200 to 500 people were still in custody late in the day when Bishop Paul Verryn, head of the church, went to Old John Vorster Police Station in Johannesburg, where the immigrants were being detained.
Verryn told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that those still detained were being held in deplorable conditions.