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South Africans march against xenophobia, deadly attacks on foreigners

The march comes after weeks of attacks against foreign nationals in which at least five people were killed

Thousands took part in a march in solidarity with South Africa's foreign nationals in the coastal city of Durban on Thursday, protesting recent xenophobic assaults.

The rally — attended by up to 5,000 people including religious and political leaders — comes after weeks of intimidation and attacks directed against immigrants in which at least five people have been killed resulting in the arrests of 74 people since the end of March, according to Durban police spokesman Col. Jay Naicker.

The atmosphere at the rally was mostly calm, with protesters singing solidarity songs.

"I definitely think that it's about time people stood up for our brothers and sisters because we are Africans," Durban resident Avastha Singh told Al Jazeera at the march. "It's so important to show our support because xenophobia should not be tolerated."

Meanwhile, a counter-demonstration in an eastern suburb of Johannesburg descended into violence. South African police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a crowd of anti-immigrant protesters, Reuters reported. Around 200 protesters, shouting that they wanted immigrants to leave, pelted passing vehicles and the police with rocks, triggering the show of force, it was reported.

With unemployment and poverty levels high in South Africa, immigrants are accused by some of taking away jobs. Locals began to burn and loot foreign-owned shops earlier this year, while violence reignited in recent weeks after the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, said immigrants should "take their bags and go."

Ahead of the march on Thursday, many shops were closed in Johannesburg, fearing attacks as well. Messages circulating on social media warned people in Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is situated, and KwaZulu-Natal to be on high alert for possible attacks and to also remain indoors.

Fearing more violence, over 2,000 foreigners have already sought shelter in refugee camps in Durban, a South African aid group said on Wednesday. The refugee camps, established on sports fields around Durban, will not be large enough if attacks on immigrants continue, said Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers organization.

Those who can afford it are planning to leave the country, Sooliman said. "They've lost their houses, they've lost their businesses, they've lost everything."

In Malawi, officials have set up transit camps expected to house Malawians returning to the country, said Kondwani Nankhumwa, the country's information minister.

South Africa President Jacob Zuma has condemned the violence and assigned several cabinet ministers to work on the problem with officials in KwaZulu-Natal province.

The government is addressing South African citizens' "complaints about illegal and undocumented migrants, the takeover of local shops and other businesses by foreign nationals as well as perceptions that foreign nationals perpetrate crime," Zuma's office said in a statement.

He also issued a warning to illegally operating foreign-owned businesses to close their doors.

Some foreign nationals boycotted the march in protest against the South African government's efforts to resolve the problem.

The last time xenophobic violence in South Africa escalated to such heights was in 2008, when at least 60 people were killed and scores more injured.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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