Suburban gang war leaves baby injured

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A five-week-old baby has become the latest victim of crime in Sydney, where fears of rising gang violence in its poorer suburban fringes belie the beautiful postcard image of its harbourside heart.

Jeremy Nunes, the father of the baby, Elizabeth, was carrying her in a harness close to his chest as he walked home from a friend's house in the beachside suburb of Maroubra last Thursday. Suddenly, a gang leapt from a car and beat and kicked him to the ground as he tried to cradle his daughter from the blows. Police believe the attack was a case of mistaken identity.

Elizabeth was in hospital yesterday recovering from severe head injuries and the seizures brought on by her ordeal. Her father's face was covered in bruises and grazes.

The attack has sparked outrage across the city of four million people, Australia's largest. Residents told radio talk shows it was no longer safe to walk through the streets of some neighbourhoods.

Doctors said Elizabeth was improving, but they could not rule out long-term effects from her head injuries.

Police had arrested two men last night, aged 23 and 20. A third had walked into a police station and given himself up. Police were still searching for a man and a woman also believed to be involved.

Law enforcement officers said the five assailants had been seeking a man they say assaulted a woman and stole her mobile phone. They apparently mistook Mr Nunes for the alleged thief and were not aware that he was clutching his daughter.

Rozita Leoni, a community lobby group leader, said gangs of boys and young men were robbing people and intimidating shopkeepers and families even during the day. But state crime experts insist the assault was an isolated incident.

"We haven't seen any increase in assaults in any area of Sydney in the past 24 months," said Jackie Fitzgerald, a manager at the Bureau of Crime Research and Statistics for New South Wales state. "We're certainly not on the back of any crime wave." But some neighbourhoods continue to suffer high levels of crime, which are reported in lurid detail by the media.

In 2000, Sydney questioned its reputation as a peaceful, multiracial melting pot when a group of young men of Lebanese origin committed a string of rapes. The ringleader was jailed for 55 years. Police are also still searching for a sexual predator who has attacked women in another suburb this year.