Chaos in new urban battleground as violence erupts in North

Thick black choking smoke blew down Market Street, one of the main shopping thoroughfares in Manchester last night, as the city caught the contagion of rioting that is sweeping through Britain. The Miss Selfridge shop had been set alight, only one of around 100 shops smashed and burned as upwards of 2,000 rioters rampaged through the city centre streets.

Thugs wearing ski masks and hoods, armed with sticks and metal poles moved in six or seven groups, each several hundred strong. They ran from hundreds of riot police in full gear, occasionally stopping to confront them, but mainly dodging down side-streets and alleyways, wreaking havoc as they went. Windows were smashed at Marks & Spencer, Diesel clothing shop and a Bang & Olufsen store. Shop mannequins, which had been torn from the shattered windows, lay on the streets like bodies.

At one point 1,000 rioters confronted the police in the central Piccadilly Gardens, throwing stones, bricks and rocks they appeared to have brought with them. The rioters laughed and cheered as they went about their destruction. Police, on horses and in white tactical aid unit vans with protective black grids over the windscreen, pushed the rioters down Market Street but the thugs broke into smaller groups and slipped away to reform elsewhere.

Across the river similar scenes had taken place in Salford where several hundred youths had materialised and – by sheer force of numbers – pushed away police in full riot gear who were protecting the main shopping centre. With the police gone, the centre was looted. More thieves appeared carting off produce from a smashed-up Lidl supermarket. Looters came in cars to fill their boots with plunder. The supermarket was then set on fire. A community centre was also set ablaze, as was the BBC Manchester radio car which had been set upon by a mob. By the end of the night 11 separate fires were burning.

There was evidence everywhere that the riot had been organised and was being directed. Earlier in the day police had arrested a man in Wigan who had been inciting violence on Facebook. Later seven others were arrested by Cheshire Police on similar charges.

But eyewitnesses on the street reported group leaders among the rioters issuing orders. Boys on fast BMX bikes were acting as spotters to report to the leaders where the police were moving. They appeared to be carrying messages between different groups.

One Arndale worker, Rayhan Rezi, 27, told a reporter from the Manchester Evening News: "A small minority would go in one direction to divert police officers and the remaining ones were smashing windows. It was a small minority who were hooded up wearing hats and sunglasses and doing the damage; most were just watching and had come for the loot." Large numbers of curious bystanders remained in the city all evening. Some just gawped; others teetered on the brink of joining in. "Everyone into Oldham Street," one riot leader shouted at one point – and the mob turned and acted on the instruction.

BlackBerry messages had been used earlier in the day to assemble the crowds at the Salford shopping precinct with the group forming at around 3pm and then growing gradually until the windows of a Bargain Booze shop were smashed and the store looted at about 6pm. It seemed to be the signal for the violence to kick off across the city.

A nearby Central Housing Office was then set on fire. Around the same time Miss Selfridge in the city centre was set ablaze. Children as young as eight were milling round on the edge of the violence. One of the city council's elected officials, Councillor Pat Karney, was there when the violence began. "Around 70 of them wearing balaclavas went down Lower Market Street," he told the local paper. "They were aged from 11 to 17 or 18 and were laughing their heads off as they smashed windows."

By midnight the violence had become more sporadic and large sections of the city centre had been reclaimed by lines of riot police. The ground was littered with stones and debris, but the clean-up had already begun.

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