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Racial tensions spark Sydney beach violence

SYDNEY, Monday (Reuters, AFP) - Racial tension erupted into violence on a Sydney beach when around 5,000 people, some yelling racist chants, attacked youths of a Middle Eastern background, saying they were defending their stretch of beach.

Thousands of local surfers and beachgoers gathered at Cronulla Beach after two young lifesavers were attacked last Sunday by a group of young men from Sydney's western suburbs.

Drunken youths chased and attacked Australians of Middle East appearance at the beach in Sydney's south, sending some cowering into shops and hotels for safety, as riot police and dog squads tried to stop the violence.

Twenty-five people were injured and 16 were arrested as the race riots spread to several suburbs, police said Monday.

Islamic and political leaders condemned the violence, which was launched by mobs of youths who attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance on Cronulla beach in south Sydney on Sunday.

Six police officers were injured as they tried to quell the violence, and two ambulance officers were also hurt.

By Sunday night, violence had spread to a second beach, Maroubra, where men armed with baseball bats smashed cars. Police said a man was stabbed in the back in south Sydney in what media reports said appeared to be further racial violence.

As the crowd moved along the beach and foreshore, one man on the back of a truck shouted: "No more Lebs (Lebanese)" - a chant picked up by the group around him. Others carried Australian flags and dressed in Australian sports shirts.

"This is Australia, if they don't like it they can go home," local resident Allan told reporters as he watched the violence.New South Wales state premier Morris Iemma described the violence at Cronulla beach as "stomach turning".

"I saw yesterday people trying to hide behind the Australian flag; well they are cowards whose behaviour will not be tolerated," Iemma told Channel Nine television.

Iemma said he planned to bring together community leaders for discussions about how to prevent further violence. Police Commissioner Ken Moroney said he was disgusted by the violence.

"It's not Australian to adopt a mob mentality and then amongst other things assault women - I have never in all my life known of anything that's so un-Australian," he said.

The president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keysar Trad, called on the police to "use the full extent of the law on these criminal thugs who behaved in the way that they did".

The director of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations, Kuranda Seyit, said in a statement: "We have over 3,000 kilometres of beaches on the east coast, there's plenty of sand and ocean there for everyone.

"What happened to the Australian idea of a fair go and tolerance?"

"The behaviour that has been seen down here at Cronulla today is nothing short of disgusting and disgraceful. It is certainly not the Australian way," said Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Goodwin. He said some of those attacked were of Arabic background but had been born in Australia.

Cronulla resident Tertia Harry wept as she watched the violence. "I would expect scenes like this in South Africa but not here," she told reporters. "In 2005, there should not be this disgusting display of racism."

Cronulla Beach was the scene of an attack on two lifeguards last week and a brawl later in the week in which youths turned on a media crew. Following the attacks on the volunteer lifesavers, a mobile telephone text campaign started, calling on Cronulla locals to rally this Sunday to protect their beach.

In response, a text campaign urged youths from western Sydney to be at Cronulla this Sunday to protect their mates.

All week police and politicians have been calling for calm.

Sydney's Islamic community blamed the violence at Cronulla Beach on "racist and irresponsible" sections of the media which turned a common youth issue into an issue of ethnicity.

"Innocent people have been bashed as a result of this simmering racial hatred," said Kaysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia.

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