SYDNEY, Australia – Authorities moved to crack down on rioters after two days of racial unrest in Sydney's beachside suburbs, while people of Middle Eastern descent were allegedly assaulted by whites in two other cities amid concerns the violence could spread, police said Tuesday.
Police stopped and searched dozens of cars in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla — where an attack Sunday by 5,000 white youths against people they believed were of Lebanese descent sparked two nights of race riots. But no arrests were reported Tuesday and an uneasy calm returned to Sydney.
The rioting began Sunday on Cronulla Beach when about 5,000 white youths — rallied by neo-Nazi groups and cell phone text messages — attacked people believed to be of Arab or Middle Eastern descent after rumors spread that Lebanese youths had assaulted two lifeguards earlier this month. Police fought back with batons and pepper spray.
Carloads of young Arab men then struck back in several Sydney suburbs Sunday and Monday nights, fighting with police and smashing the windows of stores, homes and parked cars. Nearly 40 people were injured and 27 arrested in the melees, police said.
Racial tensions in Australia have been rising in recent years, largely because of anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and deadly bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October 2002.
They also were heightened by a gang rape case in 2002 in which prosecutors and witnesses said members of a Lebanese gang hurled racial abuse at their rape victims, all of whom were white. The ringleader, Bilal Skaf, was sentenced to 55 years, an unusually severe sentence for the country.
"The rapes have had a significant impact in terms of race relations in Sydney," said professor Chris Culleen, director of the Institute of Criminology at Sydney University.
In an attempt to keep the peace, lawmakers in New South Wales, where Sydney is located, will meet Thursday to pass laws giving officers tough new powers to crack down on rioters, including ordering bars to shut and erecting roadblocks to effectively seal off suburbs, state leader Morris Iemma announced.
Iemma said he would urge lawmakers to pass legislation increasing prison sentences for riot offenses. He also said police would be given special "lockdown" powers to stop convoys from forming and driving into communities to carry out acts of retribution.
Iemma said the rioters had "effectively declared war on our society and we won't be found wanting in our response."
On Monday, police said they discovered weapons including firebombs and rocks on the roofs of some houses in the beachside suburb of Maroubra. Some of those arrested were armed with machetes and baseball bats.
Elsewhere, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported Tuesday that a family of Middle Eastern origin was attacked the night before in the western city of Perth by a group of 11 white men, who threw eggs, shouted abuse and kicked their garage door.
Perth police Superintendent Shayne Maines said authorities could not rule out a link between the attack and the racial violence in Sydney. "There was some suggestion they did make ethnically related comments to the occupant of the house," Maines said.
In Adelaide, a taxi driver of Lebanese origin, Hossein Kazemi, was injured Tuesday when he was punched by a passenger. Police said there was an argument over the fare, but the victim was taunted about the riots in Sydney because he was of Lebanese origin.
And on the Gold Coast in Queensland state, text messages targeting ethnic groups have called for people to attend a demonstration on Sunday and to start "cracking skulls," Australian Associated Press reported.
Prime Minister John Howard, who has defended Australia's policy of tolerance, noting the nation has successfully absorbed millions of foreigners, denounced the violence and called for calm.
"The incidents were appalling. There is no doubt about that. Violence is never acceptable," Howard said in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur, where he was attending a regional summit. "And people who indulge in violence are breaking the law and they should be punished."
The unrest recalled three weeks of rioting in France that began in the suburbs of Paris on Oct. 27 and spread nationwide, baring frustration in communities with high immigrant and Muslim populations.
In the 2001 census, nearly a quarter of Australia's 20 million people said they were born overseas. The country has about 300,000 Muslims, most in lower income suburbs of large cities.
Sydney also has a large community of Lebanese who mostly live in a cluster of lower-income neighborhoods close to the city's Olympic sports complex. New South Wales state's Gov. Marie Bashir — who holds a largely ceremonial role as local representative of Britain's monarch — comes from a Lebanese family.