Authorities begin demolition of vast Mayotte shantytown

Authorities on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte on Monday began demolishing homes in a large slum as part of a contested operation against sub-standard housing and illegal migration.

France has deployed hundreds of police officers in Mayotte -- the country's poorest region -- since April to prepare for a major slum-clearing initiative called Operation Wuambushu ("Take Back" in the local language).

Diggers started destroying the sheet-metal shacks in the Talus 2 slum in the Majicavo area at around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) on Monday, AFP journalists saw.

Police wielding crowbars entered the homes to check no one was inside before the destruction began, while the electricity and water supply was cut.

Mayotte's top state official Thierry Suquet said on the scene that there were "162 shacks slated for demolition".

"Today, half the families who lived in this neighbourhood have been re-housed," he added.

Some said they had been left without shelter, however.

"I have nowhere to live for the moment," said Fatima Youssouf, one of the oldest people in the shanty town at 55.

She added that she had been unable to remove some of her possessions from the home where she invested all her savings.

Another resident, Zenabou Souffou, wept at the sight of the construction machines, telling AFP she had been living in the area for 25 years and brought up seven children there.

Her husband, a demolition worker, had to be taken to hospital when he fainted as the work reached the door of his own mother's house, she added.

- 1,000 homes to raze -

France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on Twitter that his "political initiative is paying off".

"We are continuing to destroy shanty towns where many families were living in disgraceful conditions, while offering to re-house them," he added.

Suquet also insisted that evicted families were being provided for, saying the state's "balanced" policy would offer "appropriate lodgings" to "French citizens and regularised foreigners living in these conditions".

Out of Mayotte's estimated 350,000 residents, half do not possess French nationality -- with the number falling to one-third in the shanty towns.

The French island sits in the impoverished Comoros Islands archipelago, with thousands of Comorans making the trip across to Mayotte in search of higher living standards every year.

The influx has caused major tensions on Mayotte, where many locals complain about crime and the strains put on overloaded state infrastructure.

Some associations have denounced Wuambushu as a "brutal" measure violating the rights of migrants, but local elected officials and many islanders have supported it.

The operation initially triggered clashes between youths and security forces and fuelled diplomatic tensions with the Comoros.

Expulsions of undocumented workers to the Comoros resumed on Wednesday after tensions cooled between the two territories.

The demolition of Talus 2 was originally scheduled to take place on April 25 but was suspended by a court decision. Two subsequent legal rulings then authorised the French state to proceed.

Operations there will last all week, Psylvia Dewas, the local official in charge of reducing illegal housing, told reporters.

Across Mayotte, around 1,000 sub-standard homes are slated for destruction.

Six families filed requests for re-housing Monday at the town hall in the neighbouring Talus 1 district, the prefecture said.

Showing his allocated lodgings in Talus 1 to AFP reporters, Abderrahmane Daoud said that "this isn't a home, see, there aren't even separate rooms."

"How can I live here with my wife and children? Where will we sleep?"