London: British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday police will crack down hard to quell a wave of rioting and looting across London over the past three nights - the worst violence in the British capital in decades.
“This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated,” Cameron told reporters outside his Downing Street office after returning from a family holiday in Tuscany to deal with a crisis that has stunned Londoners.
“People should be in no doubt that we will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets,” he said.
Cameron said he would recall parliament from its summer recess on Thursday to make a statement on the unrest, which has also spread to other British cities.
Politicians and police firmly blamed the violence, in which shops were looted and cars and buildings set ablaze in several mostly poor areas of London -- on criminals and hooligans.
But some commentators and local residents said its roots lay in tensions and anger over economic hardship in a city where the gap between the haves and have-nots is highly visible and the prospects for many youths are dim.
“We ain’t got no jobs, no money. We heard that other people were getting things for free, so why not us?” asked E.Nan, a young man in a baseball cap in Hackney, a multi-ethnic area in east London and one of the worst-hit areas.
The unrest poses an added challenge to Cameron as Britain’s economy struggles to grow while his government slashes public spending and raises taxes to help eliminate a budget deficit.
They also show an ugly side of London to the rest of the world less than a year before it hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, an event which organisers hope will showcase a dynamic, prosperous and cosmopolitan city.
“Last night was the worst the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) has seen in current memory for unacceptable levels of widespread looting, fires and disorder,” a police statement said on Tuesday.
Police arrested more than 200 people overnight and a total of 450 over the three nights. The statement also said 44 police officers were injured as well as 14 members of the public.
With reinforcements called in from other areas, 16,000 police officers will be on the streets on Tuesday night, almost three times the 6,000 officers out on Monday night, Cameron said.
However, police have also faced criticism for failing to bring the situation under control as gangs of youths mobilized using social media and looted shops at leisure.
Some critics said they were reluctant to go in hard for fear of upsetting local sensibilities.
The first riots broke out on Saturday in London’s northern Tottenham district, when a peaceful protest over the police shooting of a suspect two days earlier led to violence.
Tottenham includes areas with the highest unemployment rates in London. It also has a history of racial tension with local young people, especially blacks, resenting police behaviour including the use of stop and search powers.
No work, no future
Stunned Londoners meanwhile counted the cost of the pillaging and tried to clear up the mess on Tuesday morning.
In the poor eastern district of Woolwich, broken glass littered streets that were strewn with stolen goods, tailors’ dummies and other debris.
In Ealing, one resident told Reuters about 150 hooded youths had walked down his road smashing car windows.
“It’s very sad to see. But kids have got no work, no future and the cuts have made it worse,” said Hackney electrician Anthony Burns, 39. “You watch. It’s only just begun.”
Hackney’s Mare Street, scene of serious disorder on Monday night, was largely back to normal by morning, with traffic flowing and the streets swept clean. A few shops had smashed windows boarded up, including a betting shop and a cafe.
The cafe’s owner, who declined to give his name, said he would lose as much as 10,000 pounds because of the attack.
“There’s no reason for it. It’s mindless, they attacked random shops. It’s sickening,” he said.
The blocks around Clapham Junction looked like an urban war zone. The station itself - which bills itself as the world’s busiest rail junction - was open.
But one building that had housed shops on its ground floor was gutted by fire and still smoking on Tuesday morning. Stores with electronics and audio equipment had been raided.
In Woolwich, resident David Hill, who works in financial services, said: “It’s terrible. They have burnt out the places that they drink in, that’s the funny thing about it. I can understand the jewellery, that’s fair enough, but this is absolutely outrageous.”
Roger Helmer, a member of the European Parliament, reflected the anger felt by many Londoners over the violence.
“Time to get tough. Bring in the Army. Shoot looters and arsonists on sight,” he tweeted.
Anarchy in the UK
Officials said the violence would not hurt preparations for the Olympics. The London 2012 Organizing Committee was hosting an International Olympic Committee visit on Tuesday.
“Everything is going ahead as planned...there is no change to the plans,” a committee spokeswoman said, adding that the Stratford Olympic park site near Tottenham was secure.
However, other sporting events suffered. England have cancelled Wednesday’s international soccer friendly with the Netherlands and three club games have also been called off.
It was also likely to cost insurers “tens of millions of pounds”, the Association of British Insurers said.
The ramifications also extended into international finance at a time when world markets are in turmoil.
“Just a few days ago we were talking about sterling as a new safe haven but these riots taking place are another blemish that must have soured anyone’s taste for the currency,” said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.
Colin Stanbridge, head of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the violence could not have come at a worse time for business, with the capital’s firms already bearing the cost of the continuing economic turmoil.
“This really isn’t the image we want to present to the world,” he said.