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Long-term tensions behind Sydney riots

December 13, 2005, BBC News, Kim Camberg

Residents, police and politicians are all asking what has fuelled the violence which has swept Sydney's suburbs in the last few days. Was it racism, revenge or simply alcohol-induced aggression? The first large-scale outbreak of violence, on Sunday in Cronulla, had been a widely publicised event. Everyone was drunk and anyone of Middle Eastern appearance got bashed. It went on all day into the night Wade Kereopa It came a week to the day after two surf life savers had been assaulted in what was believed to be an unprovoked attack by a large group of men of Middle Eastern appearance. The following week, texts started circulating around Sydney calling for a revenge fight. By Sunday, the media and a crowd of about 5,000 had gathered in anticipation in Cronulla. Right wing pamphlets were seen circulating in the crowd. Seventeen-year-old Wade Kereopa and his friend Kurt Sholes were at the beach. "At about 12 o'clock everyone started gathering at Cronulla and then some guy yelled out 'There's Lebs on the next train!" so thousands of people went up to the station, but there was only about two on the train and about 50 people ran on and bashed them," said Kurt. His friend Wade, who admits to have been drinking all afternoon, found himself on the train as well. "I saw a crowd of people running to the train station. I went to have a look and ended up getting pushed onto the train by all the Aussies behind me. All these Aussies were smashing these Middle Eastern people. Then another guy of Middle Eastern origin got chased and beaten by the crowd. Everyone was drunk and anyone of Middle Eastern appearance got bashed. It went on all day into the night," he said. Apparently in retaliation, a Caucasian man was stabbed after an altercation outside a golf club with "a group of males of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean appearance", according to police reports. Fifty car-loads of youths - again of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean appearance - later smashed 100 vehicles with baseball bats and other weapons. Police received reports of firearms being "flashed" but not discharged. The hostility escalated and spread across eight suburbs in Sydney's south and west. Sixteen people were arrested and charged with 41 offences. On Monday, tensions remained high. More retaliatory attacks were carried out and police later made 11 more arrests during a second night of violence. Car-loads of people were stopped and searched, there was violence at a mosque in the western suburb of Lakemba, assaults were carried out and a group of men armed with iron bars and guns were dispersed by police outside a convenience store in Cronulla. 'Attritional' Despite the fact that right-wing pamphlets have been circulated, the violence does not appear to have been co-ordinated from the wings by extremist groups, but to be the result of large groups of youths fuelled by mass hysteria. It does, however, come against the backdrop of long-term racial tensions in Cronulla - a predominantly white community with a beach easily accessible on the train from Sydney's western suburbs, which are home to a large Muslim population. [The violence is] not going to stop one day. It's going to keep going, which is what it's been doing since my father's time Jason Lalor, Cronulla Jason Lalor lives minutes from the beach and is pessimistic that there is a quick fix to the deeply rooted antagonism on both sides. He says he has been harassed by groups of Lebanese youths on more than one occasion and says he is tired of being hassled in his own neighbourhood. "It's not going to stop one day. It's going to keep going, which is what it's been doing since my father's time." The Australian Arabic Council (AAC) agrees that tensions have been building. "These events typify an ugly and fringe element of Australian society," said AAC chairman Roland Jabbour. "Arab Australians have had to cope with vilification, racism, abuse and fear of a racial backlash for a number of years, but these riots will take that fear to a new level," he said. On Tuesday morning the New South Wales premier announced he was recalling parliament to push through tough new police powers to allow them to tackle the unrest. In addition to having new powers of arrest, police will also be allowed to close down pubs and off licenses to prevent inebriated crowds accessing more alcohol. There are new fears that the violence could spread nationally, with a high volume of mobile phone text messages inciting racial hatred. One reads: " We'll show them! It's on again sunday... send this to everyone in your phone book... this is a straight up WAR! We must continue to come together to help the innocet an family's so every one can enjoy our beach's!" The country is watching and waiting to see what happens next.

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