Rioters rampaged across London last night as police struggled to contain a third night of rioting and looting. David Cameron was forced to cut short his holiday to take charge of the operation to halt the violence.
An emergency session of Cobra was scheduled to take place this morning as politicians and police sought to find a way to quell the disturbances that have riven London.
As darkness drew in last night violence broke out in so many parts of London that it began to read like an A to Z of the capital. Peckham, Ladbroke Grove, Ealing, Croydon, Catford, East Dulwich, Bethnal Green, Lewisham and Clapham, while in Hackney police fought for much of the day with rioters who hurled shopping trolleys, bins and pieces of concrete at officers, and set fire to vehicles.
Police pleaded for people to keep off the streets, and the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tim Godwin, issued an appeal to parents to "contact your children" to make sure they were home rather than rioting or watching the violence. The plea came amid reports that a boy as young as 11, who was charged with burglary, is among those who have been arrested.
The Prime Minister's decision to head home came shortly after Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, headed home from holiday as the rioting appeared to be spreading rather than abating. As parts of London were lit by a backdrop of flames, violence erupted in Birmingham and Leeds. At least nine arrests were made in Birmingham.
Hundreds of extra officers were drafted in from outside London to deal with the unrest but were unable to stop shops being looted and set ablaze. In Hackney looters carried trays of diamond rings from a jeweller's, and at least one police officer and one elderly bystander were injured.
In Peckham a shop was set ablaze and because it was beyond the police cordon the fire brigade was unable to move in until police charged rioters to clear the street. Among the victims of violence in Croydon was a family business that had been in the town for 100 years but was destroyed by a fire. Mike Fisher, leader of Croydon Council, described the violence as "mindless hooliganism" and dismissed suggestions that it had anything to do with the shooting dead in Tottenham last week of Mark Duggan. "If you speak to the people who have done this tonight, they would not even know who Mark Duggan was," he said. "This is pure criminal activity by mindless thugs and morons."
Rioters and looters, many of them wearing hoodies and with scarves over their faces, maintained contact with each other, planning their newest attacks, on the BlackBerry Messenger service. BlackBerry was in talks with the police yesterday on how it can help police to combat the way the encrypted service is being misused.
Earlier in the day police said that 215 people had already been arrested, and with officers vowing to publish CCTV pictures of any suspected rioters and looters, hundreds more are expected.
The acting Commissioner described the violence as "gratuitous" and said too many people were getting in the way of officers trying to stop the unrest: "I do urge now that parents start contacting their children and asking where their children are. There are far too many spectators who are getting in the way of the police operation to tackle criminal thuggery and burglary. I'm imploring that people within those communities actually start clearing the streets to enable my police officers to deal with the criminality that's occurring in front of them." He added: "I can understand grievances and I've heard lots of debate about what the actual issues are that are making people commit these acts. But what I've seen is pure gratuitous violence, it is criminal damage and it is burglary."
Shops shut early in many parts of south London after being warned the rioters could be heading their way, and National Rail closed a number of railway stations, including Barking, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Peckham Rye, West Croydon and South Bermondsey, due to "civil unrest". Train services in some areas were halted entirely.
Mr Cameron will chair the Cobra meeting, the Government's emergency co-ordination committee, after flying home from Italy overnight. He will also meet the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and Mr Godwin. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has cancelled a visit to Cornwall to attend the meeting.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, welcomed the decision for Cobra to sit and called for "the strongest possible" response to the disturbances which have seen businesses destroyed and people left homeless. He said: "I am shocked by the scenes we are seeing in parts of London. This violence and vandalism is disgraceful criminal behaviour. What we need to see is the strongest possible police response to restore calm and security to our streets and for communities to work together."
Detectives have begun sifting through mountains of evidence to try to pin down the ringleaders of London's worst rioting in more than 25 years in an operation that could eventually lead to hundreds of arrests. Officers will sift through thousands of photographs, web pages and CCTV images taken throughout the disturbances to build up a picture of who is leading the violent outbursts.
The Metropolitan Police has also been using its "forward intelligence teams", officers armed with telephoto lenses and video cameras who specialise in collecting visual data on troublemakers. In Brixton, which was hit by looting throughout Saturday evening, police yesterday cordoned parts of the high street to send in forensic teams. At least three people were stabbed during the evening, according to police, and there are 28 separate crime scenes.
Co-operation from the Canadian phone giant Research in Motion, which makes BlackBerry handsets, could prove vital in securing successful future prosecutions. Unlike Twitter – which is open to the public and easy for the police to monitor – BlackBerry messaging uses a private network.
Patrick Spence, the managing director of BlackBerry UK, said last night his technicians were willing to "assist" police investigations. But the company refused to say whether it would hand over private users' data without a court order, or give police access to the messages. Last year it refused to co-operate with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE when they sought access to encrypted messages.