The U.N. secretary general has urged President Robert Mugabe to halt the demolition of slums and shanty-towns after a U.N. report condemned the Zimbabwean government for its 'disastrous' campaign.

"It is a profoundly distressing report, which confirms that Operation Murambatsvina [Drive Out Trash/Restore Order] has done a catastrophic injustice to as many as 700,000 of Zimbabwe's poorest citizens, through indiscriminate actions, carried out with disquieting indifference to human suffering," Kofi Annan said after receiving the report, which he commissioned. It was written by a respected Tanzanian diplomat, Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, executive director of U.N. Habitat, based in Nairobi.

"I call on the government to stop these forced evictions and demolitions immediately, and to ensure that those who orchestrated this ill-advised policy are held fully accountable for their actions," Mr Annan said.

The report says that at least 2.4 million people have been affected to some degree by the operation described as an "indiscriminate and unjustified" violation of international law. It had made 700,000 people either homeless or jobless.

Ms. Tibaijuka arrived in New York yesterday to present the report to Mr Annan after a three-week investigation in Zimbabwe. It remained uncertain whether it would be taken up by the Security Council.

But the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said: "We will be speaking to our international partners, in Africa, in the European Union, and at the United Nations, to ensure that the international community responds swiftly, appropriately and constructively."

President Mugabe claimed the operation, which began without warning on 19 May, was aimed at cleaning up "trash" from urban areas, ridding towns of criminal activities and restoring their 'reputation of cleanliness'.

But the U.N. envoy concluded otherwise. "While purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, [the operation] was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering," her report said.

"Even if motivated by a desire to ensure a semblance of order in the chaotic manifestations of rapid urbanisation and rising poverty characteristic of African cities, nonetheless Operation Restore Order turned out to be a disastrous venture."

Officials in Zimbabwe's Foreign Ministry who have seen the report said it had sent tremors through the regime because it was written by an organization that had hitherto supported Zimbabwe. The Foreign Minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, issued a strong rebuttal, saying that the report's accusation that the demolitions violated international law was "definitely false."

"The report described the operation in vastly judgmental language which clearly demonstrates its inbuilt bias against the operation," he said.

"A tool of segregation and social exclusion"

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    The report, written in harsh language uncharacteristic of the U.N., suggests the demolitions campaign might qualify as a crime against humanity in international law and calls for the prosecution of those responsible. It warns that Zimbabwe will take years to recover from the "crash operation" conducted using a set of colonial-era laws and policies "that were used as a tool of segregation and social exclusion."