Spiral of violence casts doubt over future meetings

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Organisers of the European Union summit in Gothenburg were today surveying the wreckage of a night of rioting and reflecting how the normally sedate university city became the scene of arguably the ugliest in a recent series of anti-capitalist demonstrations.

As rioters from Denmark, Germany and the Baltic States bought chaos to the streets of Sweden's second largest city, the Swedish justice minister Thomas Bodstrom denied that police tactics in handling the demonstrators were at fault, but admitted that police have been facing "their most difficult task ever".

Police intercepted a boatload of suspected anarchists from Denmark in the early evening, detaining 110 people bound for the centre of the rioting and Mr Bodstrom said several hundred people had come to Gothenburg with one purpose: "to fight, to destroy and to riot".

He added: "It is difficult to prevent that kind of thing" as the first casualties of police shootings were admitted to the main university hospital.

Trouble had been brewing since the EU leaders and US president George Bush were in conference on Thursday night. But nightfall marked a serious escalation in rioting and with a rising number of casualties among police and protesters. It appeared that the events in Gothenburg had exceeded even the worst violence seen in Quebec, Prague and London and the anti-capitalist demonstrations which marred the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999 and cast doubt over the next EU summit in Brussels in six months.

The rioting occurred a mile away from where the EU leaders were gathered and they were forced to abandon plans for a garden party and stay at their summit venue for dinner. The leaders also cancelled evening news conferences to make way for a "free-form discussion" with protesters.

Meanwhile the Irish EU delegation had to be moved when parts of their hotel were destroyed and main thoroughfares were littered with debris and glass and aimlessly roaming demonstrators. Earlier yesterday, several hundred protesters waving red and black flags set fires, attacked vehicles and threw cobblestones and bottles at police in the main avenue in Gothenburg. Windows including those of a McDonald's restaurant were broken and the words "class war" daubed on walls.

"There was a lot of vandalism and smashing of windows and furniture from restaurants and destruction of things from shops," said Chief Superintendent Peter Backenfall in an interview before the shooting. He said Gothenburg had up to 2,000 police on duty for the summit.

"It's serious and it's a tragedy," Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson, the summit's host and holder of the EU's rotating presidency, said before meeting citizens' groups. "My political intuition tells me to stand up and fight them. They don't have the right to decide how we shall conduct the democratic dialogue."

Some 450 rioters, mainly from Germany and Denmark, spent Thursday night in police cells, Backenfall said. Forty of those may stay in custody for up to three days while police decide whether to press charges.

"I've never seen anything like it ­ this is a peaceful town normally," said Cecilia Dalborg, a 24-year-old management educator. "I was looking out of my office window and seeing cops running by with dogs and beating people up." Hans Wolters, a member of Greenpeace's European unit, said: "The protesters went through the main shopping street and the square, smashing windows. They were tearing out poles, using chairs from café terraces as barricades and then setting fire to them.

"It seemed to be a hard core of 200 to 300 anarchist demonstrators wearing red and black. It did not seem to matter to them which windows or what property was destroyed."

Maximilian Backma, 17, a chef at the Niva café, called the event "totally unreal".

Ironically the violence came after Mr Bush had left the city for Poland.