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British government officials branded rioters who fought police, looted shops and set fire to buildings at the weekend as opportunistic criminals and said the violence, the worst in London for years, would not affect preparations for next summer’s Olympic Games.
Police arrested more than 160 people across London in a weekend of mayhem that started in the multi-ethnic, lower-income neighborhood of Tottenham, only a few miles from the Olympic park that will welcome millions of visitors in less than a year.
“It was needless, opportunistic theft and violence, nothing more, nothing less. It is completely unacceptable,” said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said he hoped the city would “have a fantastic Olympics no matter what happened last night.”
Home Secretary Theresa May was cutting short her holiday and returning to London for meetings with police officials in the afternoon, government sources said.
Nine police were injured in what police called “copycat criminality” in several parts of London on Sunday night and early on Monday, although the damage was on a smaller scale than Saturday’s rioting in Tottenham, in the north of the capital.
The riots come at a time of deepening gloom in Britain as the pain from economic stagnation is exacerbated by deep public spending cuts and tax rises aimed at eliminating a budget deficit that peaked at more than 10 percent of GDP.
The London police force has been criticized for its handling of recent large protests against the austerity measures, and its chief and the top counter-terrorism officer recently quit over revelations in the News Corp phone-hacking scandal.
While Britain’s politicians were quick to blame petty criminals for the violence, neighborhood residents said anger at high unemployment and cuts in public services, coupled with resentment of the police, played a significant role.
“Tottenham is a deprived area. Unemployment is very, very high … they are frustrated,” said Uzodinma Wigwe, 49, who was made redundant from his job as a cleaner recently.
The police, who will be in charge of security for next year’s Olympic Games in what is expected to be Britain’s biggest peacetime police operation, dismissed suggestions they failed to see trouble coming or were badly prepared.
Steve Kavanagh, a deputy assistant commissioner with the London force, said the first priority had been to ensure the safety of fire crews who came under attack as they tried to put out blazes.
“We weren’t flat-footed,” he said. “Priorities had to be determined and the resources were put where the greatest risks were. We experienced a very rapid increase in levels of violence.”
The trouble began after a vigil for a 29-year-old man who was shot dead by police as they tried to arrest him in Tottenham on Thursday. Police said an illegal gun was seized at the scene and a bullet was found lodged in one of the officer’s radios.
However, the Guardian newspaper reported that initial tests suggested the bullet in the radio was a police round. Britain’s police watchdog is investigating the incident and would not comment on the report.
On Sunday night, police said there was more looting in north, east and south London. Around 50 youths also damaged shops in Oxford Street, one of the main shopping districts in central London.
In Brixton, south London, fire destroyed a large sporting goods store and looters hauled televisions out of the broken windows of an electrical goods shop. The windows of McDonald’s and KFC fast food restaurants were smashed and covered with graffiti.
Residents said Saturday’s violence and arson left parts of Tottenham looking like it did after the German bombing of World War Two. Houses and shops were destroyed by fire and the ticket office of Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur was damaged.
The neighborhood has some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. It also has a history of racial tension with local young people, especially blacks, resenting police behavior including the use of stop-and-search powers.
One of Britain’s most notorious riots occurred in the area in 1985, when police officer Keith Blakelock was hacked to death on the deprived Broadwater Farm housing estate in violence that followed the death of a resident during a police raid.
Locals said there had been growing anger recently about police behavior.
“I’ve lived in Broadwater Farm for 20 odd years and from day one, police always pre-judge Turks and black people,” said a 23-year-old community worker of Turkish origin who would not give his name.
Police and community leaders said most local people were horrified by what happened and appealed for calm.
Local member of parliament David Lammy said many of those arrested had come in from outside the area and organized the disorder on social messaging sites.
“The weekend’s violence was not a race riot, it was an attack on the whole of the Tottenham community, organized on Twitter,” he wrote in the Times newspaper on Monday. “The grief of one family must never be hijacked to inflict grief on others.”