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More than 160 arrested at EDL Tower Hamlets march

Anti-racism protesters kettled by police after breaking away from counter-demonstration

More than 160 people were arrested yesterday as clashes broke out in east London during rival protests by hundreds of English Defence League supporters and thousands of counter-demonstrators.

The EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, was among those arrested "for incitement", the far-right group said in a message on its Twitter account. Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to keep the sides apart – and batons were reportedly used to stop protesters breaking through police lines in Tower Hamlets, home to one of Britain's biggest Muslim communities.

A police spokesman said about 160 counter-protesters were arrested after a group broke away from the official route and headed towards Tower Bridge, where they were stopped by police. There were 14 other arrests during the day for offences, including violent disorder and possession of knives and fireworks, the spokesman said.

Witnesses said free legal advice was being offered to the anti-EDL protesters. The counter-demonstration was organised by Weyman Bennett, joint national secretary of Unite Against Facism, who said 7,000 people took part in the demonstration against the EDL.

"They [EDL] didn't come up with enough numbers and they really depended on the police to be able to escort them in an area where they were not really wanted. It really was like outsiders trying to cause trouble," Mr Bennett said.

He added: "I think that the EDL are attempting to persecute the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets in the same way that [1930s British fascist leader Oswald] Mosley tried to persecute the Jewish community here.

"The best thing about today was the mixture of people who came out. It was exciting to be here."

The EDL said in a message on Twitter that "loads more than 500" took part in its march. It added that Mr Robinson had been arrested "all because he expressed his freedom of speech".

Chief Superintendent Jim Read, a senior officer involved in the policing effort, said there had been sporadic clashes during the day and five people injured. He added that most of the arrests took place during the incident at Tower Bridge because of breaches of the conditions laid down for the protests.

"Our intention was to prevent violence and show support to the local communities and we believe we achieved this today," Chief Supt Read said. "We want to thank the local communities for working so well with us on what has been a difficult day. The key point is the two groups did not meet."

London Transport buses marked "private charter" and "not in service" were used to take away protesters from the police kettle at Tower Bridge. There were reports that charity and campaign groups' legal observers were among those arrested by police "snatch squads". "I was arrested for going down the wrong street," said one protester. "It was a political arrest."

Esther King, 23, a student in Nottingham, said her father, Dave, was among 200 to 300 anti-EDL protesters who had been arrested at Tower Bridge. "Sometimes it feels as though the police can be acting as bouncers, protecting people that do bad things to other people," she said.

"I understand these people do need protection, but the people arrested in that kettle don't want to hurt anyone. They don't want to start a fight and they have been arrested. I think it's thuggery, bullying."