SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Australian police seized petrol bombs, knives and iron bars around Sydney beaches on Sunday, along with mobile phones used to spread racist messages, in a huge security operation to prevent fresh inter-communal violence.
Police put an extra 500 police on the beaches of Australia”s biggest city, taking the total cordon to about 2,000.
Officers patrolled on horseback and set up checkpoints around some of Sydney”s favourite summer playgrounds, including Bondi Beach, where a peaceful holiday mood was edged by fears of fresh violence between whites and ethnic Lebanese.
They screened cars at dozens of roadblocks, seizing knives, clubs spiked with nails, steel pikes, knuckle-dusters and bottles of petrol.
Police said they had found five people north of the mainly white beachside community of Cronulla on Sunday with a 25-litre (5-½ gallon) drum of petrol in their car, as well as condoms for making fire bombs. They also found two men with bottles of petrol on a Bondi bus.
"We will continue this operation for as long as it takes," New South Wales state police commissioner Ken Moroney told reporters, adding that 60 arrests had been made since Friday.
"I don”t think there will be any trouble today, not with 2,000 cops around," Louise Simpson, a young mother with blonde hair in pig-tails, said beneath a postcard blue sky on Cronulla beach, where the violence first erupted a week ago. "But what”s it going to be like in three or four weeks when the cops go away?" she added as she walked with her husband and daughter along the beach, with mounted police in the background.
Rioting broke out in Cronulla on Dec. 11 after surfers turned on ethnic Lebanese youths whom they blamed for a recent attack on beach lifeguards.
"The moment the cops go, the trouble will start," said Troy, 34, a jobless Cronulla surfer who supported the backlash.
The unrest revealed tensions between Sydney”s territorial surfing sub-clture, united in surfing shorts and wrap-around sunglasses, and ethnic Lebanese youths from poorer western Sydney who have become regular beachgoers.
"We got a text message from our boys to come down today, but we don”t want any trouble," said a young ethnic Lebanese man, Ahmad, who wore a camouflage baseball cap backwards and long baggy shorts with a mobile phone clipped to them.
From Punchbowl, an inland suburb of mainly Lebanese immigrants, Ahmad showed the text message: "All Arabs unite to let the Aussies know we can”t be pushed around."
Overnight, four men hit a 32-year-old man with an iron bar near an east Sydney beach, police said. Text-message threats of racial violence also sparked seaside police patrols at opposite sides of the country, in the east-coast tourist mecca of the Gold Coast and on the west-coast beaches of Perth.
Police suspect the Sydney unrest has drawn in white supremacists from around Australia and say some of the men arrested for carrying weapons have driven to Sydney from other states.
The violence has hurt Australia”s image, rekindling old stereotypes of white Australians as racist, opposition Leader Kim Beazley said. "We are not a racist country," he told local media.
In central Sydney, almost 2,000 people held a "United Against Racism" rally. Some blamed Australian involvement in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq for a growing divide between whites and Muslims.
"I have lived here for a long time but now I feel very terrified and scared to walk down the street," said Sahar Dib, 44, wearing a headscarf. She and thousands of other Lebanese fled to Australia in the 1970s when civil war broke out in Lebanon.
In Bondi, normally packed a week before Christmas, police prowled the beach and seaborne special forces patrolled the water.
"Bondi has never been this quiet. It”s sad to see such an icon of Australia not being used because it”s here for everyone," said Dave Byron, taking part in a barbecue and surfing contest.