Zimbabwe has said it will use security forces to drive out thousands of vendors selling their wares on the sidewalks and pavements of major towns, with an army general warning that soldiers will intervene if hawkers ignore a Sunday deadline to leave.

But with next to zero chances of scoring formal employment in a rapidly de-industrializing economy, many of the vendors are vowing to stay put.

Once regarded as one of Africa's cleanest cities, Harare is now a sea of vendors who clog pavements with wares of all sorts — clothing, fruits and vegetables, food, cosmetics — even car parts and medicines. The African Development Bank says at least two thirds of Zimbabweans are engaged in informal trade due to a debilitating economic meltdown.

"We will deal with you," Brig. Gen. Anselem Sanyatwe told representatives of vendors this week.

Tendai Mahachi, Harare City Council town clerk, said the council has space for 6,000 vendors but that 20,000 are operating within the central business district, adding that police would be used if they don't voluntarily leave.

"They have to leave by Sunday otherwise we will act," he said as a showdown on Monday loomed.

The National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe, which claims to have 100,000 members, described the ultimatum as a declaration of war.

"Where will our members go? Survival has to come before anything else and right now we can only survive through street vending," said the organization's director, Samuel Wadzai.

The vendors are receiving support from opposition parties and non-governmental organizations. Some human rights lawyers have written to local government minister Ignatius Chombo threatening legal action if the ultimatum is not withdrawn.

Tupo Dzetse, who said he settled for vending after fleeing anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa, said that for him this is a matter of life and death.

"I was in the frying pan and now I am being thrown into the fire," he said while hawking children's toys in downtown Harare. "At least in South Africa I had a job. But this is my country of birth so they will have to kill me first."