Reuters International

South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan looks on during a media briefing in Sandton near Johannesburg, South Africa March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File photo

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police denied being part of a political conspiracy targeting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, City Press newspaper said on Friday, after the main opposition party described the police investigation into Gordhan as a "witch-hunt".

Gordhan has been summoned by the elite Hawks police unit over a suspected surveillance unit set up years ago when he was in charge of the tax service, which was alleged to have been used to spy on politicians including President Jacob Zuma.

The minister on Wednesday declined to meet the Hawks, saying he had done nothing wrong and had no legal obligation to obey a summons from the police unit to attend a meeting on Thursday.

In the first detailed remarks since Tuesday when news emerged that Gordhan had been summoned by police, the Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi said the unit was not targeting Gordhan.

"How many cases are we dealing with every day? A lot. How many high profile cases do we investigate? A lot. It's our mandate and we are just doing our job. We deny these allegations. We are shocked," Mulaudzi said, according to the City Press newspaper.

Mulaudzi was not available when Reuters tried to reach him for comment.

City Press said Mulaudzi declined to say whether Gordhan's refusal to report to the Hawks meant that he would be arrested.

"I'm not at liberty to say how this will unfold," said Mulaudzi according to the newspaper.

The main opposition party Democratic Alliance, which strengthened its credentials by taking control of key cities in the Aug. 3 local government elections, has called for a parliamentary debate on what it called a "Zuma-mandated witch-hunt against sitting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan."

Political pundits have said since February, when he was first asked questions by the Hawks about the unit he set up while at SARS, that Gordhan is a target of political pressure from a faction allied to Zuma. The president's office said in May that Zuma was not warring with Gordhan.

Zuma said on Thursday he had confidence in Gordhan but was powerless to stop the investigation into him.

Analysts said an ongoing probe on Gordhan could rock the country's markets further as Africa's most industrialised economy teeters near recession and credit rating agencies consider downgrading it to "junk".

The rand, which had tumbled 5 percent since Tuesday in response to the investigation, picked up on Friday as the dollar retreated, with investors awaiting a speech by the Federal Reserve for clues on a rate hike in the United States.

(Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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