Luton braced for violence in far-right's 'homecoming' march

It is being billed as a triumphant homecoming. Yet Luton, the designated home town of the far-right English Defence League, doesn't see it quite like that. With an estimated 12,000 EDL supporters and their opponents heading to Bedfordshire for a mass protest march tomorrow, police in the town are mounting their largest operation to try to prevent violence.

The EDL has invited its friends from the Dutch Defence League, and other far-right groups from France and Germany are also expected to march under the banner "No Surrender to Militant Islam". Counter-protests are being planned by Unite Against Fascism, and some 1,500 police officers will attempt to keep the sides apart. Bedfordshire Police warned: "The protests mean that there will be disruption to normal life in Luton on Saturday."

Luton is where the EDL was founded and the march is being promoted with the slogan "Back to Where It All Began". It was another homecoming march, by the Royal Anglian Regiment almost two years ago, that led to the group being set up in response to the actions of a small group of extremist Muslims, who had greeted the soldiers with placards reading "Butchers of Basra" and "Anglian soldiers go to hell".

Extremist politics and religious tension were added to Luton's claims to fame, alongside its international airport, the Vauxhall car factory and the town's links to the trade of millinery. That last tradition inspired the nickname of Luton Town Football Club, the Hatters, an institution that is suffering as much as any from the local rise of the EDL.

The far-right group has recruited heavily among football fans. The anti-racist group Searchlight has investigated links between the Luton division of the EDL and the MIGs (Men in Gear), a gang of Luton hooligans. Stephen Lennon, the founder of the EDL and the owner of a Luton sunbed shop, prefers to adopt the pseudonym of Tommy Robinson, the name of a notorious Luton hooligan and author of MIG Crew.

Luton Town have had enough difficulties in recent years. Once a top flight English team, they now find themselves outside the Football League. Their next fixture, against Gloucester City takes place this evening at the club's home at Kenilworth Road in the Bury Park district, which has a large community of Pakistani Muslims.

The club would have preferred to stage the game tomorrow but has been forced to reschedule the kick-off to distance it from the march. Gary Sweet, the managing director, has been deeply concerned by the attempts of the EDL to align the football club with its cause. "We are all very disappointed that the EDL has decided to target football and particularly Luton Town to recruit members. We would like to think that our supporters are a bit above that."

Mr Sweet also said that Luton Town was "disgusted about" the EDL's use of a customised version of the club crest in some of its promotional material. Luton Town has a proud record in overcoming prejudice within football and during the 1980s provided a platform for some of England's outstanding young black players, such as Ricky Hill and Brian Stein.

Meanwhile Mr Lennon summons his followers to Luton tomorrow. The news that Luton resident Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly was behind the Stockholm car bombing in December only strengthened his hand.

"This is the heart of militant Islam," he told a Newsnight reporter last week, posing in a bullet-proof vest which he claimed he needed for protection. Police will tomorrow attempt to ensure that others do not feel similarly at risk.

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