Blunkett inquiry to search for links between race riots

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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is to investigate the common elements between the racial violence that hit Oldham and Leeds before erupting in the Lancashire mill town of Burnley over the weekend.

As the people of Burnley cleared up the shattered windows, brick missiles and burnt-out shops, the Home Office minister John Denham told the House of Commons that Mr Blunkett was "seeking out connections" between the towns' unrest, and hit out at the "exploitation" of underlying causes by far-right groups.

He said it appeared that in Burnley over the weekend a "series of individual incidents, apparently unrelated, sparked the trouble". He said the whole House would join him in "expressing disgust at the criminal violence ... and the mindless acts of provocation which preceded it".

Some politicians in Burnley, including the deputy mayor, Rafique Malik, insisted there was no link with riots at Oldham last month, or Harehills, Leeds 10 days later.

Mr Malik claimed that the Lancashire Constabulary's delay in attending a dispute between whites and Asians, in which an Asian taxi driver was smashed in the cheek with a hammer, was the catalyst for Saturday's disturbances involving more than 200 youths, some wielding baseball bats.

But Shahid Malik, the Commission for Racial Equality representative in Burnley, where the British National Party polled 11.2 per cent in the general election, conceded that Asian communities across northern England were "starting to feel under siege".

Rumours were rife yesterday that as many as 500 Asian people had driven from Rochdale into Burnley on Sunday, before the second of two nights of troubles in which a large group of white youths marched on the predominantly Asian Stoneyholme Estate, police in riot gear were called and two pubs and five cars set ablaze. "You are bound to get people wanting to show support for families and friends under threat," Shahid Malik said.

He also pointed to the arrests of people from Birmingham and Essex in the recent riots in Oldham – where the BNP polled 16 per cent – as evidence that the weekend's violence could become a "magnet" for far-right parties.

There is no disguising the shock for locals. Bill Allott, 70, a retired ambulanceman, witnessed a crowd of 200 Asians, many with hammers, chased down his street by police before they attacked the Duke of York pub. "Suddenly the windows just blew out and flames went up the building," he said. "It was frightening."

The Shafis' store in Oxford Road at the other end of town had been looted and set ablaze, apparently by white rioters.

Peter Pike, MP for Burnley, said deep-rooted problems such as empty houses and poverty were at the heart of the problem and needed more than the "extremely minimal" resources available. He demanded that more power be given to town halls to decide how to spend their budgets.

Community leaders, council leaders and police met yesterday and agreed to set up a task force to look into the riot and its underlying causes. The town also called for a cabinet minister to visit the town and help plan for the future.

Lancashire police, who refused to comment on criticisms of their response time, said six men were arrested and in custody last night. Three men arrested on Saturday in connection with the assault on the taxi driver have been bailed.

Chief Superintendent John Knowles yesterday appealed to communities to stay calm and not to take to the streets. "Burnley has got very good communities," he said.