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PM David Cameron returning as London riots spread to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol

Swathes of London were ablaze today as the worst rioting in decades tightened its grip on the city and spread beyond the capital to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

The escalating crisis forced Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short his holiday as the chaos spread beyond London to Birmingham where a police station in the Handsworth area was set on fire.

Violence has also broken out in Liverpool with police dealing with "a number of isolated outbreaks of disorder" in the south of the city, Merseyside Police said.

The force said cars had been set alight by troublemakers and there had been reports of criminal damage.

Members of the public were told to avoid the Smithdown Road, Upper Parliament Street, Lodge Lane and Lawrence Road.

A spokeswoman for Merseyside Police said: "We can confirm that officers are dealing with a number of isolated outbreaks of disorder in the south Liverpool area tonight.

"Officers were called at around 10pm to reports of vehicles on fire and criminal damage.

"A number of officers were deployed to the area to deal with the incidents and the force is dealing with its partners and other members of the emergency services."

A witness in north Liverpool described scenes of mass violence in the city.

Riot police were working to contain a crowd of about 300 people, many of whom were youths with their heads and faces covered, according to the witness.

The witness said: "They are stopping cars, pulling people out of the cars, then setting fire to the vehicles. Every car they have walked past has been absolutely trashed, with all of the windows smashed.

"Literally hundreds of cars have been damaged.

"Police look like they're trying to get them penned in."

He added that a branch of Tesco had been looted and then set on fire by the rioters.

There are also reports of shops in Bristol being atacked with around 150 rioters moving through the city centre.

Home Secretary Theresa May condemned "sheer criminality" as police and emergency services were overwhelmed by a third consecutive night of looting and violence.

Scotland Yard announced it had drafted in support from 11 other forces to deal with escalating violence across London.

Commander Christine Jones said events were "simply inexcusable" as she announced the force had now arrested 225 people and charged 36 people over the escalating riots.

"Ordinary people have had their lives turned upside down by this mindless thuggery," she said today.

"The Met will ensure that those responsible will face the consequences of their actions and be arrested."

More than 1,700 extra officers were deployed overnight as bloody scenes resembling war zones broke out across north, east and south London.

Arrests were also made as yobs also took to the streets to loot, rob and set fire to property in Birmingham.

In the worst outpouring of violence during three days of "opportunistic" attacks in the capital, major fires were started in Hackney and Peckham and a man in Croydon was injured in a shooting.

With arrest numbers set to soar, Mr Cameron flew back to Britain to chair the Government's emergency committee Cobra and meet police chiefs this morning.

Metropolitan Police Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin issued a direct appeal to families to help police tackle the "gratuitous" violence.

He said: "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."

Croydon, Hackney and Peckham saw the fiercest of the latest disturbances with hundreds of shops smashed up and set alight.

Ministers from across the political divide, along with community leaders and police officers, were united in condemning the rioters.

Mrs May said: "I think this is about sheer criminality. That is what we have seen on the streets. The violence we've seen, the looting we've seen, the thuggery we've seen - this is sheer criminality, and let's make no bones about it.

"That's why I say that these people will be brought to justice, they will be made to face the consequences of their actions and I call on all members of local communities to work with the police constructively to help the police to bring these criminals to justice."

Scenes echoed those in other areas of the capital over the previous two nights, with skirmishes between gangs of youths and police, reportedly prompted by a stop and search incident earlier yesterday.

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