Harare - Villagers and alleged war veterans aligned to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's party have occupied a South African sugar firm's plantations in a move Harare condemned as "illegal" on Thursday.
"Scores" of people descended on South Africa-based Tongaat Hulett's estates 500km south east of Zimbabwe's capital on Monday, according to Lands and Rural Resettlement Minister Douglas Mombeshora.
"We received information that some people have illegally occupied land on the sugar estates and we have given very clear instructions that they must move off," Mombeshora told AFP.
"We have instructed the police to evict them. There have been some arrests and progress has been made to get all the illegal occupants out."
Tongaat Hulett spokesperson Adelaide Chikunguru-Musvovi said the company was still functioning as normal.
"Our operations are continuing as usual. We have had no disruptions," she told AFP.
The illegal settlers claimed to have government permits allowing them to occupy the two estates in the flat lowlands, according to state-backed daily The Herald.
A war veterans association traditionally associated with the ruling Zanu-PF was reportedly part of the group.
Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association provincial chair Francis Nando said they would stay on the estate until the authorities fulfilled earlier pledges to allocate them land from sugar cane plots.
"The political leadership is protecting Tongaat Hulett for reasons best known to themselves," he told The Herald.
He could not be reached for further comment.
The illegal settlement is reminiscent of farm invasions sanctioned by Mugabe in the early 2000s that prompted a mass exodus of white landowners from Zimbabwe.
Then, party loyalists seized and occupied white-owned commercial farms in often violent confrontations, which have been partly blamed for Zimbabwe's perennial food shortages.
The government's reaction this time contrasts with its backing of the seizures ten years ago.
Following those invasions, later formalised as the official land reform programme, the government passed equity laws that compelled foreign companies to cede majority shares to local partners.
Government critics say the laws scare away potential investors from a struggling economy in dire need of foreign money.
Tongaat Hulett, which owns the whole Triangle estate and 50.3% in the Hippo Valley plantations, has come under repeated government pressure to give up its majority ownership.
The two operations together produce 640 000 tons of sugar a year.