LONDON (Reuters) - Violence flared in English cities and towns Tuesday night but London, where thousands of extra police had been deployed, was largely peaceful after three turbulent nights in which youths rampaged across the capital virtually unchecked.
Groups of youths in hooded tops fought running battles with police in Manchester in northwest England, smashing windows and looting shops. A clothes shop was set alight.
In Salford, greater Manchester, rioters threw bricks at police and set fire to buildings. A BBC cameraman was attacked. Television pictures showed flames leaping from shops and cars, and plumes of thick black smoke billowing across roads.
“Over the past few hours, Greater Manchester Police has been faced with extraordinary levels of violence from groups of criminals intent on committing widespread disorder,” Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan said.
“These people have nothing to protest against - there is no sense of injustice or any spark that has led to this. It is, pure and simple, acts of criminal behavior which are the worst I have seen on this scale.”
Further south in West Bromwich and Wolverhampton, cars were burned and stores raided. A police station was firebombed by a group of 30 to 40 males in Nottingham. No one was injured, police said.
In Liverpool, a Reuters reporter saw police with riot shields pushing back youths hurling bricks.
In London, commuters hurried home early, shops shut and many shopkeepers boarded their windows as the city prepared nervously for more of the violence that had erupted in neighborhoods across London and spread to other cities.
Gangs have ransacked stores, carting off clothes, shoes and electronic goods, torched cars, shops and homes — causing tens of millions of pounds of damage — and taunted the police.
But the streets of London were quiet Tuesday.
Community leaders said the violence in London, the worst for decades in the huge, multi-ethnic capital, was rooted in growing disparities in wealth and opportunity, but many rejected the idea that anything but greed motivated rioters.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short a family holiday in Tuscany to deal with the crisis, told reporters: “This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated.”
“People should be in no doubt that we will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets,” he said after a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA.
Another such meeting was set for Wednesday. Cameron also recalled parliament from its summer recess, a rare move.
Cameron said 16,000 police officers would be on the streets Tuesday night, compared to the 6,000 out Monday night. London has a population of 7.8 million.
The unrest poses a new challenge to Cameron as Britain’s economy struggles to grow while his government slashes public spending and raises taxes to cut a yawning budget deficit — moves that some commentators say have aggravated the plight of young people in inner cities.
It also shows the world an ugly side of London less than a year before it hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, an event that officials hope will serve as a showcase for the city in the way that April’s royal wedding did.
“No one should wake in this wonderful city of ours to see such scenes of devastation and violence,” said Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Kavanagh.
Police arrested more than 200 people overnight and a total of 563 over the three nights, filling the city’s cells to capacity. More than 100 police officers were injured.
A 26-year-old man died after being shot in Croydon, south of London, the first fatality of the riots.
Some Londoners, fearing another night of trouble, took to the streets to defend their communities. In Southall, west London, around 100 people gathered outside the Sikh temple in case of renewed rioting.
Police were seen on many streets. In Hackney, scene of some of the worst rioting Monday, groups of yellow-vested police were visible everywhere.
On Westminster Bridge tourists took pictures of each other in front of the Houses of Parliament as normal, although the crowds were thinner than normal for an August evening.
“There are more police officers on the streets, we noticed that but we didn’t see anything else and we are kind of used to violence on the streets anyway,” said Pedro, a 23 year-old Brazilian tourist. “We had a good day, went shopping..., drinking in a pub, tourist things.”
The first riots broke out Saturday in north London’s Tottenham district, when a protest over the police shooting of a suspect two days earlier led to violence.
Police are likely to come under fresh pressure over that incident after a watchdog said Tuesday there was no evidence that a handgun retrieved by police at the scene had been fired. Reports initially suggested Mark Duggan had shot at police.
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 behavior.
“It’s us versus them, the police, the system,” said one youth at a grim housing estate in the London district of Hackney, the epicenter of Monday night’s rioting.
“They call it looting and criminality. It’s not that. There’s a real hatred against the system.” His friends, some covering their faces with hoods, nodded in agreement.
Earlier Londoners rallied to clear up neighborhoods damaged in the riots. Hundreds of volunteers carrying brooms, dustpans, rubber gloves and black bags gathered Tuesday morning in Clapham, south of the River Thames, to help clean up.
The London 2012 Organizing Committee hosted an International Olympic Committee visit “as planned” Tuesday and said the violence would not hurt preparations for the Olympics.
However, other sporting events suffered. England canceled Wednesday’s international soccer friendly with the Netherlands and three club games were also called off.
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.
Additional reporting by Paul Hoskins, Adrian Croft, Avril Ormsby, Jon Hemming, Sonya Hepinstall, Jon Boyle, Stefano Ambrogi, Peter Griffiths and Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Kevin Liffey