LONDON — Britain’s prime minister hammered out a tough line against rioters Wednesday, determined to restore order and confidence on Britain’s streets as extra police officers flooded the capital for a second day.
Even as Prime Minister David Cameron promised not to let a “culture of fear” take hold, tensions flared in Birmingham, where a murder investigation was opened after three men were killed in a hit-and-run reportedly as they took to the streets to deter potential rioters.
“We needed a fightback and a fightback is underway,” Cameron said in a sombre televised statement outside his Downing Street office after a meeting of the country’s crisis committee. As if to underline his resolve, he underlined “nothing is off the table” — including water cannon, commonly used in Northern Ireland but never deployed in mainland Britain.
The number of arrests in London alone climbed to 805, with courts staffing around the clock to process alleged looters, vandals and thieves — including one as young as 11. Cameron has recalled parliament from its summer recess for an emergency debate on the riots Thursday.
Outside the capital, in England’s second largest city of Birmingham, police launched a murder investigation into the deaths of three men hit by a car. Residents said the dead men, aged 20 to 31, were members of Birmingham’s South Asian communities who had been patrolling their neighbourhood to keep it safe from looters.
“They lost their lives for other people, doing the job of the police,” said witness Mohammed Shakiel, 34. “They weren’t standing outside a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or a church — they were standing outside shops where everybody goes. They were protecting the community.”
Tariq Jahan, whose 21-year-old son Haroon was killed, stood in a Birmingham street and pleaded with the South Asian community not to seek revenge against the car’s occupants, reported to be black.
“Today we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our community to stand united,” he said.
“This is not a race issue. The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of the community — all races, all faiths and backgrounds.”
He remonstrated with angry young men, urging them to “grow up” and go home.
Chris Sims, chief constable of West Midlands Police, said a man had been arrested on suspicion of murder.
“The information we have at the moment would support the idea that the car was deliberately driven,” he said, appealing for calm. “My concern would be that that single incident doesn’t lead to a much wider level of distress and even violence between different communities.”
The violence has revived debate about the Conservative-led government’s austerity measures, which will slash 80 billion pounds from public spending by 2015 to reduce the country’s swollen budget deficit.
Cameron’s government has slashed police budgets as part of the cuts. A report last month said the cuts will mean 16,000 fewer police officers by 2015.
London mayor Boris Johnson — like Cameron, a Conservative — broke with the government to say such cuts are wrong.
“That case was always pretty frail and it has been substantially weakened,” he told BBC radio. “This is not a time to think about making substantial cuts in police numbers.”
But in London, an eerie calm prevailed. Scenes of ransacked stores, torched cars and blackened buildings have frightened and outraged Britons just a year before their country is to host next summer’s Olympic Games, bringing demands for a tougher response from law enforcement. Police across the country have made almost 1,200 arrests — including 800 in London — since the violence broke out in the capital on Saturday.
Armoured vehicles and convoys of police vans backed up some 16,000 officers on duty — almost triple the number who were out Monday night. The show of force seems to have worked — there were no reports of major trouble in London on Tuesday night, although there were scores of arrests.
“What happened in London last night was, when community leaders and the police came together, there were significant arrests,” said police deputy assistant chief constable Stephen Kavanagh. “Some looters were taken away before they got into doing anything, but it was that joint action that made the difference.”