About 200 people stoned foreign-owned shops on Dr Pixley KaSeme Street (West Street), prompting riot police to shut down the area.
The battles broke out within an hour of Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba assuring diplomats from Nigeria, Somalia, Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia that their citizens would be protected.
At the same time the ministers of the justice, crime prevention and security cluster tried to assure the country that "everything was under control" and that there was no xenophobia.
They said the ongoing violence in Durban - which has left at least five people, including a 14-year-old, dead - was ideological.
The attacks spread further north last night. Two foreign-owned shops were looted during load-shedding in Verulam.
Police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker said the two shops were looted at 7pm.
"A case of business robbery has been opened. No-one was injured and a 31-year-old suspect was arrested. He will appear in court soon," Naicker said.
Police remained on high alert in the Durban city centre last night.
In the past three weeks thousands of foreigners have been driven from their homes in Isipingo, Chatsworth, Umlazi, KwaMashu and Sydenham, and placed in transit camps in Isipingo and Chatsworth.
The violence followed comments King Goodwill Zwelithini made in Pongola last month that foreigners should leave South Africa. He has denied saying this.
Yesterday, police warned shop owners on Dr Pixley KaSeme Street to stay in their shops as they used stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the mob.
"Please help us. They want to kill us," Ethiopian shop owner Aka Bob Amaha said. "We can't stay in our shops waiting for them to burn us."
Foreigners who own shops on Point Road declared they were not willing to "be prey for South Africans". Armed with axes, machetes and sticks, about 1000 foreigners burned tyres, overturned bins and waited for the mob to arrive.
"We heard that they are attacking foreigners on West Street, and near The Workshop shopping centre so we are ready to fight back when they come here," a Nigerian man said.
Dozens of foreigners sought refuge at the Diakonia Council of Churches building near the Victoria Embankment.
Paramedics treated four people in the city centre.
"Three patients were stabbed. One patient was burnt. All patients are stable," Robert Mckenzie, a paramedic with the KwaZulu-Natal Emergency Medical Services, said.
He said the burn case was in Dr Pixley ka Seme Street and private ambulances transported two of the patients.
Earlier, Gigaba, who is leading the inter-ministerial team responsible for ending the xenophobic attacks, said the police would end the violence.
"We will arrest and prosecute to send the correct message."
He said President Jacob Zuma had issued a directive to remove foreigners from scenes of violence and to provide them with temporary shelter until they could be reintegrated into communities.
Speaking at a briefing of the justice, crime prevention and security cluster in Cape Town, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko said: "I can tell you now that this so-called xenophobia is not that. It's more 'Afrophobia'. It's ideologically driven. But we are on top of it. We are in control and are handling the situation well.
"We have early-warning centres and a 24-hour hotline. But it requires the involvement of communities to stop this sporadic violence," he said
Asked why the government was refusing to use the term xenophobia, Nhleko said the violence was not aimed at all foreigners.
"It is African on African. It is not on other nationalities."
Asked about attacks at the weekend against Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, he again said the violence was ideologically driven.
"We have plans in place to address the violence. Like we did when it erupted in Soweto in January and like we did in 2008," he said, referring to xenophobic violence that gripped the country seven years ago and left 63 people dead.
Ingrid Palmary, an associate professor at the Wits African Centre for Migration and Society, said the government's comments were deeply frustrating.
"We are in the midst of some of the worst violence since the 1980s. It is targeted at foreigners, but the fact that it is not targeted at all foreigners doesn't mean that it's not xenophobic. The violence is still driven by anti-foreigner sentiment," she said.
What was surprising was how much the government invested in saying the violence was not xenophobia, Palmary said.
"It's alarming that there hasn't been a consistent and strong message from our leaders, with even tacit support [of the attacks] emerging from some [leaders]."
Palmary said there had not been a successful prosecution for xenophobia since 2008.
"It's clear people are getting away with this. Prosecutions are exactly where we should be focusing our attention on to send out strong messages that this will not be tolerated.
"[The increase of xenophobia] is something to be worried about. We must ask: if it's so easy for the fundamental rights of one group to be trampled, who is next?"
Trish Erasmus, head of the Lawyers for Human Rights refugee and migrant rights programme, criticised Nhleko's remarks that the situation was under control and that the violence was ideological.
"It's all very well to have academic debates about the causes of xenophobia, which are important for future prevention strategies, but at the same time we need to realise that we are dealing with an urgent crisis. We need a more coherent and decisive response from the government. It's clear the government hasn't learnt from its mistakes from 2008."
XENOPHOBIA TO AFROPHOBIA
Back in 2008, after a wave of killings of foreigners, former president Thabo Mbeki said South Africa "bowed its head in shame" and promised that all would be done to prevent attacks in future.
But since then there have been many outbreaks of violence aimed at foreigners, mostly from neighbouring African countries.
Mbeki's government blamed criminal elements and refused to use the term "xenophobia".
He said: "E verything I know about my people tells me that ... [they] are not xenophobic. These masses are neither antipathetic towards, nor do they hate foreigners."
As violence spread in Durban and surrounding areas this week, calls were made for President Jacob Zuma to address the nation.
His administration has resorted to issuing statements and holding press briefings condemning the violence.
Zuma has assigned three ministers to attend to the issue, which his officials insist should be called "Afrophobia".
Seven years ago, Mbeki said his government would "do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse".