Night of violence in Birmingham leaves Asians fearing for their lives

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The Independent Online

Iqbal winced as his finger touched the purple bruising and neat line of stitches above his swollen left eye. He stood in the wreckage of his fast-food shop, including an upturned charity box, looted of its donations to victims of the South Asian earthquake.

The 33-year-old shopkeeper, who did not want to give his full name, said: "This is racial harmony in Britain today: where a rumour of a crime leads to a mob who trash your business and want to smash your face in because of your colour."

Shortly after 7pm on Saturday night, a gang of about 100 youths, most of them black, swept along Iqbal's street in the Lozells area of Birmingham, smashing his windows and display counter with cricket bats and bricks. The charity box was emptied of £200 donated by customers, both black and Asian.

A few yards from the kebab shop, a British Pakistani taxi driver suffered serious head injuries when his car was set upon by masked attackers, throwing house bricks through the windows. Yesterday the wrecked car stood outside the man's house, a pile of blood-stained bricks in the front and passenger seats.

By the end of a night punctuated on at least 12 occasions by gunfire, one man was dead, 20 people had been sent to hospital, including three with stab wounds, and at least a dozen homes and businesses ransacked in the worst racial violence to have hit Britain's second city since the Hands-worth riots in 1985. Police said that more than 80 offences had been committed during one 75-minute "burst of extreme violence". They confirmed that the victim of the fatal stabbing was a 23-year-old black man.

Hundreds of police were patrolling the Lozells area to try to prevent a recurrence of the vicious clashes between Afro-Caribbean and Asian youths, which senior officers blamed on a "small minority" intent on stirring up racial hatred.

The disturbances on Saturday came after a week of increasing friction. This had been caused by unsubstantiated allegations of the gang rape of a 14-year-old black girl by up to 19 Asian men in an Asian-owned shop selling Afro-Caribbean beauty products in the nearby district of Perry Barr.

West Midlands Police said last night that an exhaustive investigation had yet to find any evidence that the assault had taken place and the alleged victim had yet to come forward. Supporters say her status as an illegal immigrant means she is too afraid to do so.

But the lack of evidence did not prevent details from being broadcast in lurid detail by DJs for two Afro-Caribbean pirate radio stations in Birmingham throughout last week. This led to protests outside the beauty products shop and a petition signed by 1,000 calling for more to be done to trace the alleged rapists.

The Independent has learnt that at least one of the radio stations, Hot FM, and a DJ named "Warren G", called for a boycott of Asian businesses in Lozells. This is a racially mixed area north-west of Birmingham city centre with a large Muslim community originating from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Claims were made that several black women had been assaulted by Asian men.

The 33-year-old owner of the beauty products chain, Beauty Queens Cosmetics, who has strongly denied that any sexual assault took place after being interviewed by police for 12 hours last week, said a mob mentality had been generated. He said: "What kind of society are we living in when hundreds of presumably law-abiding citizens can be duped into coming on to the streets to protest when the so-called organisers don't know exactly what they are protesting about?"

Police sources said they were investigating claims of incitement to racial hatred against Hot FM and another station, Sting FM.

Ilyas Mohammed, 28, a Royal Mail worker who narrowly escaped injury when a brick was thrown through his car window, said: "I happen to listen to Hot FM and the stuff this station was putting out was poison. It was about how this girl had been attacked and the Asians were to blame. They said black people should not be spending their money in Asian shops and how we were too successful. The sub-text was obvious.

"It was more like Rwanda than Birmingham. What happened last night was black kids feeling they could respond to that by beating up some Pakis."

The disturbances, which also left one police officer injured when he was hit in the leg by a projectile fired from a ball bearing gun, followed a meeting held at the New Testament Church of God on Lozells Road, attended by two senior police officers and the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, who represents Perry Barr.

Police played down suggestions that the violence was inspired by rival Asian and black drugs gangs. Assistant Chief Constable David Shaw said the meeting and an earlier peaceful demonstration had led him to believe there would be a "successful conclusion" to rising tensions. He said: "It now becomes clear some people did not intend that to happen. People started the day with intent to actually create mayhem."

A senior figure in the Lozells Afro-Caribbean community, many of whom are of Jamaican extraction, said a sense of social injustice lay behind the trouble. He said: "I'm ashamed of what I've seen in recent days ­ people from my community walking into Asian shops and telling them to shut down or be burnt down. It is an absolute minority but beneath it is the fact that the Asian community here has been successful. The shopping area on Lozells Road 20 years ago had two or three Asian shops ­ now they make up the vast majority. Some people here think that's down to some sort of unfair advantage and last night was their way of seeking their revenge."