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Australia moves to curb racial unrest

Concerns voiced of wider violence

SYDNEY -- 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 yesterday.

Police stopped and searched dozens of cars in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, the scene of two nights of race riots, but no arrests were reported yesterday 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 cellphone 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.

Lawmakers in New South Wales, where Sydney is located, will meet tomorrow to vote on laws to give officers tough new powers to crack down on rioters, state leader Morris Iemma announced.

Elsewhere, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported yesterday 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 yesterday 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.

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.

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