Zimbabwean police are under orders to destroy "illegal dwellings" and vendors' shacks as part of a campaign to clean up the city. Harare, Zimbabwe. (AP file photo)

Police and troops have destroyed the homes of at least 200,000 destitute people in Zimbabwe's cities over the past three weeks, in an action called "Operation Drive Out the Rubbish."

The government of President Robert Mugabe says the bulldozing operation was a necessary crackdown on crime and illegal housing in neighbourhoods populated by poor street traders.

"We're forced to sleep in the open," one woman whose home was destroyed told CBC News through a translator. "We're desperate for food and shelter. We'd be better off dead."

As Zimbabwe's national Parliament opened Thursday, Mugabe declared that the action would restore "sanity" in the cities.

"The current chaotic state of affairs where [small businesses] operated outside the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas could not be countenanced for much longer," he said.


Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. (AP file photo)

Opposition representatives dispute that, saying the goal has been to scatter dissenters and lessen the chances of an uprising against Mugabe's regime.

"The conditions are so bad in Zimbabwe, as we speak all the ingredients are there for a mass uprising, so he wants to preempt any possibility of civil unrest by getting people into the rural areas, emptying the cities," said Basildon Peta, a journalist living in exile.

Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have migrated to cities such as Harare over the past decade, seeking scarce jobs. The country's unemployment rate now tops 70 per cent.

Mugabe's opponents called for a general strike this week to press for reforms, but a strong police presence kept people away.

Almost 30,000 people have been arrested during the crackdown, despite protests from the United Nations over Mugabe's tactics.

Zimbabwe was once an economic leader in Africa, but the country has not been able to feed itself properly over the past five years since Mugabe's land redistribution program drove most white farmers from the country.

The sub-Saharan country of 12.5 million people depends heavily on UN food aid.

Mugabe, 81, has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.