Sydney beaches deserted as police seize knives and bomb-making equipment

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The Independent Online

Basking in the reflected glory of living in a city once again rated among the most liveable in the world, Sydney residents should have been relaxing in the time- honoured fashion on their city's many beaches.

The Sunday before Christmas is one of the busiest by the beach, but yesterday the police outnumbered visitors as they moved to prevent a repeat of last week's racially motivated violence. Those who went to enjoy the waves had a new and incongruous experience as they negotiated police cordons and barricades with their surfboards. The police had flooded the area in cars, on foot and on horseback. They were backed up with boats and helicopters.

By nightfal, 60 people had been arrested under new police powers. Almost 200 charges were laid against them. The police seized 22 mobile phones, 13 cars and scores of weapons including swords, knives, iron bars, baseball bats and axes. They also seizedpetrol bombs and other bomb-making materials.

For months, controversy has been simmering in Australia over draconian new stop-and-search powers introduced by the Prime Minister, John Howard. But yesterday, Sydney suddenly came face-to-face with the new powers as car boots were opened and searched, people questioned at random and the text messages on their mobile phones closely inspected. Sydney's police commissioner, Ken Moroney, warned that people who had forwarded inappropriate and offensive text messages to incite the riots could face 10 years in prison under the legislation passed last week.

The show of force saw 2,000 officers on patrol and mounting roadblocks at Sydney's famed beaches including Bondi, Coogee, Maroubra, Brighton-le-Sands and Cronulla, as well as in Wollongong to the south of the city and Newcastle to the north. The operation was hailed as a success, but with the number of visitors drastically down. Bondi beach attracted only 3,000 people yesterday, compared with the 25,000 usually expected at this time of year. North Cronulla beach, where thousands of young white men attacked people of Arabic and Mediterranean backgrounds last week, had only 100 visitors compared with the 5,000 it normally gets at this time of the year.

But behind the peace and quiet of the normally raucous beaches, a disturbing picture was emerging of gangs set on violence. Police arrested known white supremacists, as well as isolated groups and individuals of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Mr Moroney told The Sydney Morning Herald last night that he was prepared to maintain the unprecedented level of police activity over Christmas and the new year, including warning the public off beaches if intelligence reports continued to point to credible threats. "We acted appropriately this weekend and we will continue to sustain this focus," he said. "These were extraordinary measures for an extraordinary time."

Five people the police described as white supremacists were arrested at Ramsgate beach carrying a 25-litre drum of petrol with bottles and rags to make Molotov cocktails. They also had military helmets, police scanners and portable radios. Elsewhere, police took two Lebanese men carrying petrol bombs off a Bondi-bound bus. The driver called the police after smelling petrol.

The men had reportedly come from a large "harmony" rally in the city earlier in the day, and police said they were carrying "anti-government literature" from the gathering. They allegedly had mobile phones with messages inciting violence, including one that said "all our soldiers are ready to attack".

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