Muslim graves desecrated in Birmingham cemetery

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Hundreds of police officers were drafted on to the streets of Birmingham last night after dozens of Muslim grave headstones were damaged at a city cemetery, triggering concerns about fresh race riots.

The desecration was discovered yesterday morning by relatives visiting the Muslim part of Handsworth Cemetery in Birmingham.

Leaflets were also scattered among the grave stones with insults against Muslims which were attributed to a unknown group calling themselves Black Nation. Up to 45 headstones were smashed or pushed over.

Last month violence involving Asian and black youths took place in the nearby area of Lozells, provoked by an unsubstantiated claim that a 14-year-old black girl had been gang raped. Despite intensive police inquiries, no evidence has been found to support the rape allegation, which appeared to have started on a pirate radio station.

The local MP yesterday said that he suspected the leaflets were printed by members of the far right from outside Birmingham in an attempt to stir up racial unrest.

The leaflets read: "Death to all Muslim rapists. May all your dead rot in hell. Black Nation."

West Midlands Police said extra officers would be on duty in the Lozells area during the weekend in case of any more trouble. The police are investigating who sent the leaflets, including examining the paper for DNA and fingerprints.

Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr in Birmingham, who visited the cemetery shortly after the incident was reported to the police, said: "I suspect the trouble-makers were from outside the local community whose aim was to incite racial tensions.

"I hope this does not ruin all the hard work that the Pakistani Muslim, African Caribbean and Hindu and Sikh communities have been doing to calm things down here in the past 10 days."

He condemned the timing of the attack, which took place on Eid-al-Fitr, a religious day of celebration for Muslims marking the end of Ramadan, as "cruel and mindless". He urged the community not to rise to the act of aggression, inspite of the deep sense of hurt felt by many Muslims.

"People have to stay calm," he said. "This has been deliberately done to incite a further response from the community. We cannot allow these sort of people to manipulate us. The African Caribbean community has been solid in condemning it so we have to stay united."

Sukail Sidiq, 31, discovered the damaged headstones at 9am and alerted the authorities. He said: "I was going to visit the graves of my relatives because it is Eid when I discovered the damage. I saw graves that were pushed over and smashed in the Muslim section of the cemetery.

"It's an absolute disgrace that this has happened. Our relatives should be left to lie in peace."

Dr Mohammad Naseem, chair of Birmingham Central Mosque, said: "This is the only graveyard for all of Birmingham's Muslims and families have beenvery upset by this attack."

Superintendent Tom Coughlan, of West Midlands Police, said: "Clearly there is tension in the community and that was seen in the events over the last two weeks. I have always said that I believe those problems were caused by a few with real criminal intent - I think what we have seen overnight is exactly the same."