The UN refugee agency is "extremely concerned" about the ongoing anti-immigrant violence in several South African cities. Meanwhile, neighboring countries are starting to repatriate their citizens.
The ongoing xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg have killed at least six people and displaced 5,000 foreign nationals, refugees and asylum seekers, the UN's refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement published on its website on Friday.
"UNHCR is extremely concerned. We have welcomed the response by the government in trying to contain the situation and provide assistance," spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva.
In Johannesburg, police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to end a stand-off between South Africans and an immigrant vigilante group who had armed themselves with machetes.
In the last two weeks, South Africa has been hit by a wave of xenophobic attacks, which have spread from the port city of Durban to the financial capital Johannesburg.
At a meeting with diplomats in Pretoria, Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane asked neighboring nations to work with South Africa to "defeat this demon."
"We all have to nip this in the bud," she told reporters.
However, countries like Malawi, Kenya and China have urged South Africa to better protect their citizens. Malawi hired buses to repatriate 500 of its nationals on Friday.
Tutu compares attacks to apartheid
Meanwhile, South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu likened the attacks to apartheid. He said in a statement that the rainbow nation that "filled the world with hope is being reduced to a grubby shadow of itself."
He also said that South Africa was "witnessing hate crimes on par with the worst that apartheid could offer."
The latest wave of unrest began after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was quoted by local media as saying that foreigners should leave South Africa. He has since said his comments were misinterpreted and has urged residents to be calm.
South Africa has a population of about 50 million and is home to an estimated 5 million immigrants, from countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, and from further afield, including China and Pakistan.
Very high unemployment and lackluster growth is thought to be behind the latest anti-immigrant violence.
In 2008, Johannesburg was the center of anti-foreigner attacks that killed more than 60 people.
ng/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)