The Metropolitan Police Commander in charge of quelling riots in Brixton yesterday admitted his force had been stretched to the limit as mob violence erupted across London.
The Lambeth Borough Commander, Nick Ephgrave, said he "bitterly regretted" not containing the trouble before stores were smashed, burned and looted along the south London borough's high street.
Brixton, scene of similar disturbances in the 1980s, bore the brunt of a second night of chaos on Sunday after thousands of revellers attended a street party in the area. But, as night fell, revelry turned to violence as hundreds of youths in masks and hoods gathered, throwing bottles and rocks at the phalanx of armoured police attempting to subdue the unrest.
Yesterday acrid smoke still hung in the air around a burnt-out branch of the shop Foot Locker, while fist-sized rocks and packaging lay strewn across the car parks of Curry's and Halfords.
At least 20 other businesses, including a KFC, WH Smith, McDonald's and Tesco, were attacked as police struggled to contain the mob, which witnesses said grew as messages were sent by rioters with mobile phones.
Speaking yesterday at a crisis meeting of local community leaders, Commander Ephgrave said: "I regret bitterly that we could not get to the high street in time. What I didn't want was for my men to abandon their position and go chasing up the hill only to come back to find people had come round the back and started looting shops and off-licences there.
"You are hearing it through the crackling radio and it's the fog of war stuff and it is difficult to make crystal-clear perfect decisions all the time."
He said there were three stabbings during the night and one police officer had to "have his face stitched up" after being attacked for attempting to foil a burglary. He also said it was almost impossible to anticipate the violence because the culprits had communicated through BlackBerry Messenger service which is "difficult to intercept, unlike Twitter and Facebook, because of their secure PIN services".
He added that there was no political motivation behind the unrest, which was due to the actions of "chancers and hot heads".
John Dawson, 31, a postman, watched from his flat in St Matthews estate opposite Curry's and Halfords as rioters ran in and out "like ants" ferrying televisions and electrical equipment. "It was like a war zone out there. For about an hour they were shouting and smashing the shop windows with hammers and crowbars. They soon came out with TVs, laptops, bicycles. This went on until 3am or 4am."
About a mile away, a mob of around 50 attacked Tesco, forcing open the metal shutter and attempting to steal cash registers and food.
Enzo Antinoro, the store manager, said the 20-strong staff who were stocking shelves when they came under attack were forced to barricade themselves in a back room in terror. "They gave self-service another meaning," he said. "We are just thankful none of our staff were hurt."
One local shopkeeper, whose store is next door to McDonald's and who refused to give her name, said a police officer told her thugs had stolen around £9,000 in cash after smashing their way in. "We just shut the shutters and hid at the back of the shop," she added.