SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – Prime Minister John Howard on Monday condemned a day and night of race riots in Sydney beachside suburbs but said he does not believe Australian society has an undercurrent of racism.
Howard was speaking as police formed a strike force to track down the instigators of the running battles that involved drunken mobs of white men yelling racial slurs, young men of Arab descent and hundreds of police.
The fighting left 31 people injured, including police and paramedics. One was hospitalized after being stabbed in the back by a man police said was Arab in appearance. There were 16 arrests.
"What we have seen yesterday is something I thought I would never see in Australia and perhaps we have not seen in Australia in any of our life times and that is a mass call to violence based on race," Community Relations Commission Chairman Stepan Kerkyasharian told Sky News.
Police chief Ken Moroney called the rioting among "the worst violence that I have ever seen in my policing service of 40 years."
The neighborhoods where the rioting broke out were peaceful early Monday evening, but local media reported that mobile phone text messages were circulating calling for more violence next weekend.
Several hundred people of Arab descent gathered later in the evening outside one of Sydney”s largest mosques to chant, according to reporters at the scene.
Police spokesman Paul Bugden said about 300 people remained at the mosque at 9:30 p.m. and were being watched by "sufficient police to prevent a breach of the peace." Bugden said it also was quiet in the suburbs hit by Sunday”s rioting.
The prime minister condemned the rioting, saying most Australians are not racist. "Attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable and should be repudiated by all Australians irrespective of their own background and their politics," Howard said.
"But I”m not going to put a general tag (of) racism on the Australian community," he said. "I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country."
New South Wales state political leader Morris Iemma said police would hunt down the instigators of the violence, which authorities said was fanned by neo-Nazis.
"There appears to be an element of white supremacists and they really have no place in mainstream Australian society," Police Minister Carl Scully said. "Those sort of characters belong in Berlin (in the) 1930s."
Rioting erupted Sunday after thousands of drunken white youths attacked police and people of Middle Eastern appearance at Cronulla beach in southern Sydney. It spread later with retaliatory attacks by groups of youths of Arab appearance who stabbed one man and smashed dozens of cars.
The violence shocked the city of 4 million which prides itself on being a largely harmonious cultural melting pot. Sydney”s Daily Telegraph”s front page headline, over a picture of white youths attacking a man of Arab appearance on a train, read: "Our disgrace."
Keysar Trad, a prominent member of Sydney”s Lebanese community, said he had spoken to one man released from a hospital Monday after being beaten by white thugs, who was urging calm in the days ahead.
"He doesn”t want any retaliation by anybody from a Middle Eastern background," Trad said. «He doesn”t want anybody to succumb to provocation. He wants everyone to allow the rule of law to take its course, leave it to the police and he said he holds no grudges against anyone."
Iemma called together senior Muslims and community leaders from the suburbs hit by rioting in a bid to ease tensions and prevent a recurrence of the violence.
One government lawmaker, Bruce Baird, said anti-Muslim resentment that has risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia that killed 88 Australians also played a role.
Local residents say there have been frequent minor racially charged confrontations on Cronulla beach, but never anything close to the scale of Sunday”s unrest.
Cronulla is easily accessible by train and often is visited by youngsters, many of Middle Eastern ethnicity, from the poorer suburbs of western and southern Sydney.
Residents accuse the visitors of traveling in gangs, being disrespectful and sometimes intimidating other beach-goers. That escalated when two men of Arab appearance attacked two volunteer lifeguards a week ago, sparking a flurry of mobile phone text messages calling for retaliation.