The 2011 riots:

Police: we'll fight fire with fire

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Orders given to use plastic bullets as riots spread across Britain

David Cameron and the head of the Metropolitan Police have taken the unprecedented step of authorising armed officers to use plastic bullets if needed to stop looters and rioters laying waste to Britain's major cities. The Prime Minister and senior officers approved the emergency powers for "as long as they are needed" to get a grip on the lawlessness which has now spread from London to communities across the country.

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The Government also discussed introducing CS gas and water cannon to break up disturbances in future – a move which would end a 180-year tradition of "minimum force" public order policing in Britain.

Last night, Manchester and Birmingham became the new centres of the riots as shops were attacked and looted and cars set on fire. Violence also spread to Liverpool, Nottingham, Salford, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.

"The police are being given an opportunity to prove they can control this by traditional methods and maximising their strength on the streets," said a senior Whitehall source. "All options will have to be considered if all else fails." If used, it would be the first time plastic bullets had been fired on mainland Britain.

Among other news yesterday:

* Officers were drafted into London from 30 forces – bringing the total strength on the streets to 16,000.

* Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and London Mayor Boris Johnson were jeered as they toured communities hit by Monday night's rioting.

* Insurers put the cost of the disturbances so far at more than £100m, while the police called for extra funding to cover the cost of operations.

* David Cameron announced that Parliament will be recalled tomorrow to debate the riots – the first time such a recall has occurred as a result of disturbances in mainland Britain.

So far, 111 Met officers and five police dogs have been injured in the violence after being attacked with bricks, bottles and planks of wood. Scotland Yard has made 685 arrests over the four nights since rioting began, and charged 111 people with offences ranging from burglary to possessing offensive weapons.

A snap poll to be published today found only 28 per cent of the public thought the Prime Minister had handled the crisis well so far. The vast majority backed the use of hardline tactics such as water cannon, tear gas and plastic bullets. Such methods would prove highly controversial. Plastic bullets have been implicated in at least 17 deaths in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years.

The Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said any decision to use plastic bullets would not be taken lightly, but added that it was "one of the tactics" available to officers. "We are not going to throw away 180 years of policing with communities quickly," he said. "The repercussions and change to the way we police if we take the decision to use them will be long lasting. The Met Police does not wish to use baton rounds, but if it gets put into a position that it needs to protect the people and the property and the lives of Londoners then we will do so."

Sir Hugh Orde, the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told The Independent he was not in favour of using plastic bullets or water cannons. "The great strength of the British policing model is minimum use of force," he said. "So understandably there is concern from professional cops – rather than people who think they can run policing – about how you deal with this."

Monday night already saw a policing first when Jankels – heavily armoured 4x4 vehicles – were deployed in London for the first time. They were used in Clapham and Hackney, but only after hours of serious rioting and looting.

In a clear criticism of the police response so far, Mr Cameron called on officers to use "more robust" tactics against rioters. He pledged to speed up court procedures to deal with "many more" arrests expected as police scour hundreds of hours of CCTV for evidence. He warned the rioters: "You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment."

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