Durban - Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini on Monday denied whipping up xenophobic hatred in South Africa after he was accused of triggering violence that has left at least seven people dead and forced thousands from their homes.
Zwelithini had made an angry speech last month blaming immigrants for rising crime and saying they must leave the country, in an outburst seen as inciting the spate of attacks on Zimbabweans, Somalians, Malawians and other foreigners.
Also read: ECOWAS speaks out on SA xenophobic violence
Addressing a tribal gathering of several thousand Zulus in the port city of Durban the king insisted he had been misrepresented.
"My speech was directed at the police, calling for stricter law enforcement, but that was never reported," he said.
"The public was instead given another side of my speech, which has been twisted and misrepresented.
"This violence directed at our brothers and sisters is shameful."
South African authorities have struggled to contain mobs in the economic capital Johannesburg and Durban who have been hunting down foreigners.
At least seven people have been killed and 307 suspects arrested in the worst ethnic violence since 2008, when 62 people died, mainly in Johannesburg's townships.
Numbering 12 million people, the Zulus are the largest ethnic group in South Africa and Zwelithini, their traditional leader, retains great influence over his subjects.
Wearing a suit and tie rather than his royal animal-skin dress, he told the audience that he had never called on his people to attack foreigners.
"Had I said that, this country would be in ashes," he said to loud cheers.
Many in the stadium, which was built for the 2010 football World Cup, booed when foreign dignitaries were introduced and during multi-faith prayers.
Violence has receded in recent days, but one person was injured when shots were fired at an anti-xenophobia march in the Alexandra township of Johannesburg.
Anger over jobs
The rioting and looting has exposed deep tensions between South Africans and immigrants from across the continent.
Foreigners are often the focus of resentment among locals who face a chronic jobs shortage and lack of opportunities for many in the impoverished black majority.
South Africa's economy grew by just 1.5 percent last year and unemployment is at around 25 percent soaring to over 50 percent among young people.
President Jacob Zuma moved to counter accusations of ignoring the attacks, which have provoked protests from African countries whose citizens have been targeted.
"Millions of South Africans condemn these atrocious killings and abhor xenophobia and all related intolerances," he said in a statement released on Monday.
"Together we must work harder to root out violence and hatred in our society."
Zuma, who cancelled a trip to Indonesia due to the unrest, will hold special meetings this week over migration policy, refugee rights and asylum seekers, his office said.
Several thousand immigrants have been forced from their homes and are staying in camps, while Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique have organised for some of their citizens living in fear in South Africa to return home.
Zimbabwe has about one million mostly illegal immigrants in South Africa, many of them working in the service sector, on construction sites and as casual labour.
In Malawi, the first of six buses carrying citizens arrived late on Monday.
Scores of Nigerian protesters gathered in Lagos outside the South African visa office, carrying placards reading: "We Say No To Killing of Our Brothers in South Africa."
Fearing revenge attacks, Irish mining firm Kenmare Resources said Monday it had repatriated 62 South African workers from its titanium mine in Mozambique.
"Unrest regarding foreign workers in South Africa has recently created reciprocal unrest concerning South Africans working in Mozambique," the company said in a statement.
South Africa has been keen to calm foreign investors' fears, stressing that the police are capable of ensuring safety.