Armed patrols stepped up after murder of third youth

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Extra armed police officers were deployed on the streets of London yesterday after an "unprecedented" series of shootings in which three teenage boys have been murdered in 11 days.

The latest victim, who was shot dead in an apparent revenge attack at his home in Clapham, south London, on Wednesday afternoon, was named yesterday as 15-year-old Billy Cox. In response, Scotland Yard has increased the number of armed officers in specialist cars and is carrying out more armed stops of suspected gunmen.

Extra unarmed street patrols and undercover officers are also being deployed into "hotspot" areas in south London.

Police are alarmed by the spate of shootings, which they believe are gang-related.Until April 2005, the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident squad, which investigates shootings in black communities, had not charged anybody under 20 with murder. Since then, 16 teenagers have been charged, one aged just 14. Firearms officers said gun crime they were encountering was as likely to involve teenagers as those in their 20s.

The murder of Billy Cox comes days after the fatal shooting of James Andre Smartt-Ford, 16, and Michael Dosunmu, 15.

Commander Cressida Dick, of Scotland Yard's specialist crime directorate, said: "Three deaths of young people in this way by shooting is unprecedented. It has shocked and appalled my officers greatly.

"As a consequence we are greatly increasing the police resources that will be available in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth.

"We will be doing everything in our power to bring to justice those who commit these terrible crimes."

Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is pressing John Reid, the Home Secretary, to lower the age at which the mandatory five-year sentence for carrying a gun can be imposed, from 21 to 17. Mr Reid, who is considering the request, will meet Sir Ian and other senior officers again today to discuss the next steps in combating gun and gang culture across the country.

Mr Reid will also meet MPs to discuss the issue, while community leaders, advisory groups and representatives of the London Mayor will gather at Scotland Yard to discuss the killings.

Sir Ian said yesterday his force was "absolutely determined" to end the recent spate of shootings.

The latest, in Clapham on Wednesday, has heightened fears that gun crime among teenagers in south London gangs is starting to run out of control.

James Andre Smartt-Ford, the eldest of the three recent shooting victims, was shot at a busy ice rink in Streatham on the evening of 3 February. Michael Dosunmu and Billy Cox were both shot down in their homes in Peckham and Clapham respectively - Michael on 6 February. Police arrested a man yesterday over Michael's murder.

Police investigating the shootings are also looking at two other murders in south London in the past two weeks - those of Chamberlain Igwemba, 47, who was shot in a flat in Camberwell, and Javarie Crighton, 21, who was fatally stabbed in Peckham.

Sir Ian said there was "no evidence" that the crimes were linked or that they were "tit-for-tat" murders, but he said there were "evidential leads" that linked some of them.

Sir Ian said police had identified a "new trend" of teenagers and young adults increasingly being involved in killings and serious violent crime.

A number of factors were behind it, he said, only some of which were to do with policing. He said the lack of role models in some households was an issue.

"Some of these young people have got very little connection to stable community lives," he said. "This is not just an enforcement issue. The problem is more complex."

Since April 2005 the Operation Trident team has dealt with 16 murders in London, compared with 12 in the same period previously. The total number of firearms incidents was down by 14 per cent.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey, commented: "The extra protection which the Met is putting into south London is very welcome. Children and young people are always the most vulnerable and the most likely to be the victims of violent crime."