By Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told officials and business leaders on Wednesday that he was committed to quelling attacks on foreigners that have threatened to cast a cloud over an economic forum aimed at boosting intra-African trade.
Police have arrested almost 300 people and confirmed at least five deaths after riots in Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria in recent days, when roving groups attacked shops mainly owned by migrants from the rest of Africa.
It is unclear what ignited the latest round of violence, but analysts say contributing factors include high unemployment and frustration with limited economic opportunities.
The unrest has kindled memories of previous deadly attacks on foreigners and strained diplomatic relations with Africa’s other economic powerhouse Nigeria.
South African businesses MTN and Shoprite closed stores in Nigeria on Wednesday after their facilities in the country came under attack.
Other African countries from Ghana to Ethiopia and regional bloc the African Union have called on Ramaphosa to take action. Artists and citizens from across the continent voiced their anger on social media, with some threatening retaliation.
Police spokesman for Gauteng province, Colonel Lungelo Dlamini, said they were "experiencing a dramatic decline in public violence and looting" as the number people arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attacks on foreigners had increased to 289 since Sunday.
"Taking action against people from other nations is not justified and should never be allowed in our beautiful country ... We need to quell those incidents of unrest," Ramaphosa told an event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Africa three-day summit starting on Wednesday.
“South Africa must be a country where everyone feels safe, including women and foreign nationals,” Ramaphosa said, also condemning incidents where women had been killed.
Hundreds of mainly female students protesting about violence against women tried to storm the conference centre in Cape Town where the WEF conference was being held, but they were restrained by police who later used stun grenades against demonstrators.
"Women get raped in this country every single day and nothing is happening. The president is sitting there inside having a fancy lunch with all these people trying to sell our country to the world, (while) there is no peace and no justice," said a student protester from the University of Cape Town, who declined to be identified.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Malawi’s Peter Mutharika pulled out of the conference at the last minute, prompting speculation in South African media that the no-shows were linked to the attacks on foreigners.
South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation said the leaders who had confirmed attendance were all taking part, adding attendance was "satisfactory".
WEF spokesman Oliver Cann said Kagame and Mutharika had informed conference organisers that they could not attend by Saturday, before the attacks had started.
Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, part of a large Zimbabwean government contingent including President Emmerson Mnangagwa, said the attacks were “unfortunate”.
“It is unfortunate that African brothers go against each other neck on neck in that kind of scenario, in an environment where we are looking forward to regional integration and co-operation and where Africa as a whole has embraced the continental free trade agreement as a bedrock of integration,” Sibusiso Moyo told Reuters.
There are a significant number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa and they have formerly borne the brunt of attacks on foreigners, along with Somalians and Nigerians.
Immigration to South Africa from across Africa and from parts of southeast Asia picked up in the early 1990s, spurred by the end of apartheid rule and the economic boom that followed.
But in recent years, attacks against foreign-owned businesses have become a regular occurrence as frustration mounts over high rates of unemployment, currently around 29%, the highest level in a decade.
Some 60 people were killed in a wave of attacks around the country directed against foreigners in 2008. Another outbreak of violence killed at least seven people in 2015.
Hundreds of University of Zambia students dressed mostly in black and chanting "No Violence" protested outside the South African High Commission against the attacks on foreigners on Wednesday. Zambia criticised them for burning a billboard.
On Tuesday, the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) called off the country's friendly soccer international against South Africa in Lusaka on Saturday, citing "prevailing security concerns in South Africa".
(Reporting by Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Additional reporting by Nqobile Dludla and Onke Ngcuka in Johannesburg and other Reuters reporters in Africa; Editing by Alison Williams)