Embattled police struggled to contain a third night of riots, looting and arson as David Cameron cut short his holiday to chair a session of Cobra, the emergency co-ordination committee, scheduled for this morning.
As darkness drew in last night violence broke out in so many parts of London that it began to read like an A to Z of the capital. Peckham, Ladbroke Grove, Ealing, Catford, Chalk Farm, East Dulwich, Bethnal Green, Lewisham, Clapham and Croydon – where one person was shot and wounded – were all affected. In Hackney police fought for much of the day with rioters who hurled shopping trolleys, bins and pieces of concrete at officers, and set fire to vehicles.
Trails of destruction were left wherever rioters and looters congregated. Police pleaded for people to keep off the streets, and the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tim Godwin, asked parents to "contact your children" to make sure they weren't rioting or watching the violence. The plea came amid reports that a boy of 11, suspected of burglary, was among those arrested.
Nor was the violence confined just to London. Rioters rampaged through the centre of Birmingham during the evening and later an unmanned police station was set alight in the Handsworth district of the city. At least nine arrests were made in Birmingham. There were outbreaks of violence in Leeds and Liverpool. A Merseyside Police spokesman said early this morning that there were "a number of isolated ooutbreaks of disorder."
The Prime Minister's decision to return came shortly after Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, headed home from holiday as the rioting appeared to be spreading rather than abating. Hundreds of extra officers were drafted in from outside London to deal with the unrest but were unable to stop shops being looted and set ablaze. In Hackney looters carried trays of diamond rings from a jeweller's, and at least one police officer and one elderly bystander were injured.
In Peckham a shop was set ablaze and because it was beyond the police cordon the fire brigade was unable to move in until police charged rioters to clear the street. Among the victims of violence in Croydon was a family business that had been in the town for 100 years but was destroyed by a fire.
Mike Fisher, leader of Croydon Council, described the violence as "mindless hooliganism" and dismissed suggestions of a link to the shooting dead in Tottenham last week of Mark Duggan. "If you speak to the people who have done this tonight, they would not even know who Mark Duggan was," he said. "This is pure criminal activity by mindless thugs and morons."
Rioters and looters, many wearing hoodies and with scarves over their faces, maintained contact with each other, planning attacks on the BlackBerry Messenger service, which is encrypted and so cannot be accessed by the police.
Earlier in the day police said that 215 people had already been arrested, and with officers vowing to publish CCTV pictures of any suspected rioters and looters, hundreds more are expected.
The acting Commissioner described the violence as "gratuitous" and said the crowds were getting in the way of officers trying to stop the unrest: "I do urge now that parents start contacting their children and asking where their children are. There are far too many spectators who are getting in the way of the police operation to tackle criminal thuggery and burglary. I'm imploring that people within those communities actually start clearing the streets to enable my police officers to deal with the criminality that's occurring in front of them."
He added: "I can understand grievances and I've heard lots of debate about what the actual issues are that are making people commit these acts. But what I've seen is pure gratuitous violence, it is criminal damage and it is burglary."
Shops shut early in many parts of south London after being warned the rioters could be heading their way, and a number of railway stations were closed, including Barking, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Peckham Rye, West Croydon and South Bermondsey, due to "civil unrest". Train services in some areas were halted entirely.
Mr Cameron was due to chair the Cobra meeting this morning after travelling home on a 3am military flight from Italy. He will also meet the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and Mr Godwin. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has cancelled a visit to Cornwall to attend the meeting.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, welcomed the decision for Cobra to sit and called for "the strongest possible" response to the disturbances.
He said: "I am shocked by the scenes we are seeing in parts of London. This violence and vandalism is disgraceful criminal behaviour. What we need to see is the strongest possible police response to restore calm and security to our streets and for communities to work together."
Detectives have begun sifting through mountains of evidence to try to pin down the ringleaders of London's worst rioting in more than 25 years in an operation that could eventually lead to hundreds of arrests. Officers will sift through thousands of photographs, web pages and CCTV images taken throughout the disturbances.
The Metropolitan Police has also been using its "forward intelligence teams", officers armed with telephoto lenses and video cameras who specialise in collecting visual data on troublemakers.
In Brixton, which was hit by looting throughout Saturday evening, police yesterday cordoned parts of the high street to send in forensic teams. At least three people were stabbed during the evening, according to police, and there are 28 separate crime scenes.
Co-operation from the Canadian phone giant Research in Motion, which makes BlackBerry handsets, could prove vital in securing prosecutions. Unlike Twitter – which is open to the public and easy for the police to monitor – BlackBerry messaging uses a private network. Patrick Spence, managing director of BlackBerry UK, said last night that his technicians were willing to "assist" police investigations. But the company refused to say whether it would hand over users' data without a court order, or give police access to the messages. Last year it refused to co-operate with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE when they sought access to encrypted messages.
West Ham United football club postponed its Carling Cup match against Aldershot tonight after a police request amid fears for the safety of fans. The club said: "The club were contacted this evening and told that all major public events in London were to be rearranged because of the need to focus police resources elsewhere. Whilst neither the club or police anticipate any issues around the game itself, the club has to comply with the police request."