Facing rising unrest over a collapsing economy, Zimbabwe's authoritarian government has apparently adopted a scorched-earth policy toward potential enemies, detaining thousands of people, burning homes and street kiosks, and routing large numbers of people from makeshift homes in major cities.
The scope of the operation, which began in mid-May, is unknown, in part because a nationwide gasoline shortage has prevented some of those following events in Zimbabwe from monitoring the impact firsthand.
But reports in the local press and from witnesses indicate that the police have detained or arrested as many as 30,000 residents in big cities and evicted hundreds of thousands more from shantytowns on the fringes of most cities.
The Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition party that was crushed in March elections that Western observers said had been rigged, contended at a news conference in the capital, Harare, on Wednesday that the police and soldiers had forced 1 million to 1.5 million people from their homes. Experts estimate Zimbabwe's population at 10 million to 11 million people.
Journalists and human rights advocates interviewed by telephone on Wednesday recounted scenes in which large numbers of the evicted people were camped beside major highways, unable to return to the city but equally powerless to reach rural relatives because of the gasoline shortage. Some of them, one human rights advocate said, had been there for a week or more.
"I don't think anyone has any idea of the scale -- it's big," said that person, who refused to be identified because of the potential for government retaliation. "As things have rolled out, it's clear that they probably will clear every vendor and every unregulated selling site and, probably, every shantytown in Zimbabwe. If you do that, you're talking about a quarter of the population."
The government has said in state-run newspapers that the sweep is intended to rid Zimbabwe of its ragtag element and to shut down black-market operators who, the government claims, are buying up goods to create artificial shortages and drive up prices.
Ordinary Zimbabweans speculate, though, that the campaign is intended to make way for merchants from China, Zimbabwe's new and close ally, or to punish urban residents who voted against the government in parliamentary elections on March 31.
The governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party was drubbed in major cities, but officially won most of the vote in a nation that remains primarily rural.
Some political analysts say President Robert Mugabe's government is making a pre-emptive move against urban unrest over the economic collapse, which has left store shelves empty of basic foodstuffs and made gasoline all but unobtainable.
The economy, always perilous, has sharply worsened since the elections as a shortage of foreign exchange has stopped businesses from buying imported components and kept food imports well below needs.
The police and soldiers have been called frequently in the last two weeks to put down protests and near-riots by consumers waiting in lines and by residents whose shanties were being demolished. In Harare this week, as many as 3,000 people rioted as bulldozers knocked down shanties that the government insisted were illegal structures.
"Overnight, Zimbabwe has been turned into a massive internal refugee center with between 1 million and 1.5 million people displaced in Harare alone," Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, said at the news conference.