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UK Riots: Birmingham Deaths Exposes Racial Fault Lines

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BIRMINGHAM
Tariq Jahan holds a picture of his son Haroon Jahan in Birmingham, England, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. Haroon Jahan died after being knocked down Tuesday by a car along with two other men while protecting their community from looters. Police launched a murder investigation into the deaths of three men hit by a car. Residents said the dead men, aged 20 to 31, were members of Birmingham's South Asian communities who had been patrolling their neighborhood to keep it safe from looters. | CP

BIRMINGHAM, England - With police nowhere to be seen, the Muslims of Dudley Road armed themselves with bricks and stones, clubs and cricket bats to fend off carloads of marauding gangs.

Their vigilante stand in Birmingham's west end saved a humble row of family-run shops and a red-brick mosque from the looters' grasp -- but at a terrible cost.

A carload of rioters sped into a fleeing crowd of shop defenders, witnesses said, hurling three young men into the air and killing amateur boxer Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shazzad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31.

"We all had stones in our hands. But we had no defence to stop a car. They revved their engines and drove right at us as fast as they could," Mohammed Ibrahim, 23, told The Associated Press. "These black men deliberately tried to kill us all."

Wednesday's 1 a.m. slaughter has laid bare racial tensions underlying this week's riots in Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city and its most ethnically diverse. A fifth of the city's 1 million "Brummies" are Muslims, most commonly of Pakistani origin. About 7 per cent are black, mostly Caribbean, in background.

While the riots that have swept England this week have involved looters of every creed and hue, the street anarchy also sometimes has exposed the racial fault lines that run beneath the poorest urban quarters.

Resident after resident of Dudley Road and its surrounding Winson Green district commented pointedly to The AP that the attackers were black and accused them of targeting Muslim shops.

The passions echo streetfights from previous years, such as in 2005, when a neighbouring Birmingham district suffered two nights of violence between Caribbean and Asian gangs over unsubstantiated rumours that a gang of Pakistani men had raped a 14-year-old Jamaican girl. Two men were stabbed to death, firefighters faced machete-wielding mobs, and Muslim graves were desecrated during those clashes. The west side also suffered riots in 1981, 1985 and 1991 fueled by minority hatred of white police and black resentment of the Asians' dominant position as shopkeepers.

"We'll hunt down these black men, cut off their heads and feed them to our dogs," said Amir Hawid, 20, who lives just a hundred yards (meters) from the killing scene and heard the screams of the crowd at the moment of impact.

As forensics specialists combed the bloodied, rock-strewn pavement for clues, hundreds of local Muslims and Sikhs -- some wearing ceremonial daggers at their waists -- packed into a community hall Wednesday to confront three white police commanders who had come seeking to calm tensions. Twice as many Muslims, many in robes and kufi caps, stood outside.

Speaker after speaker complained that they had pleaded by phone for police protection the previous night, when black gangs raided local markets and chased bar staff onto the roof of one pub, yet police failed to respond. Some argued that the police had warned them not to attempt to defend their own streets, yet had offered no alternative.

The three dead men "did nothing wrong! They died because they were doing the job of protecting our community. The job that you lot should have been doing!" one speaker shouted, jabbing an accusatory finger at the police panel.

Detective Superintendent Richard Baker, commander of the 60-strong police team hunting the killers, said they already had arrested the suspected driver and 11 others potentially linked to the shop attacks on Dudley Road. He pleaded for locals to overcome their antipathy to the police, give eyewitness statements and hand over amateur camera footage.

"I will deploy whatever it takes to get justice for this community," Baker said above a din of muttered heckles and shouted accusations, dozens of men trying to speak at once.

Baker and the local commander, Superintendent Sean Russell, defended their force's response to the killings -- which Russell admitted he could see from the police control centre on a closed-circuit surveillance camera -- because gangs were attacking shops in the city centre. That triggered angry cries that police cared more for protecting downtown shopping centres than Muslim communities.

Russell said it took officers 10 minutes to arrive; locals insisted it was a half-hour and the officers arrived in riot gear thinking the Muslim crowd might pose a threat. The officers said they had to be cautious.

Afterward, a chastened Baker said it had been the toughest community meeting of his life. In quiet one-to-one conversations, he offered his cellphone number to local residents and pleaded for them to find eyewitnesses.

"We really want to help you, but you need to help us too," he told one man, who said he'd been afraid to speak up and express moderate views during the meeting.

And a local black resident, who didn't want to be identified by name because of fears for his safety, pleaded outside with the departing Muslim crowd not to start targeting blacks in retaliation.

"Don't take your anger out on everyone. Don't keep saying it's black, black, black, black. Don't take this too far," he declared, street preacher-style, after abusive comments were directed at him. "I've lived and worked here seven years alongside you. I don't want to be afraid to walk down that street now. Don't make me afraid, because I didn't do it, man."

The AP found several witnesses outside the hall, who like the dead men had taken up crude arms and manned the sidewalks in hopes of keeping the invaders at bay. None expressed confidence that the police would bring justice.

"We will avenge our brothers. This is a tight community, and someone in their group will brag about how they attacked the Muslims," said Waseem Hussain, 24, who joined the defence of the shops.

Hussain said several carloads of would-be shop raiders began casing Dudley Road, driving cars up and down the road before midnight, as scores of locals were still in the mosque observing the night's final Ramadan prayers.

He said one carload stopped at the local gas station and convenience store -- which had been ransacked the night before and was now closed with metal shutters -- and asked a few youths whether there was "anything new to rob."

He said locals threw stones and bricks at the cars, whose occupants had their windows rolled down. The two sides traded verbal abuse as the cars repeatedly passed, Hussain estimating at least a dozen times. The Muslim crowd grew as prayers concluded around 12:30 a.m.

After the cars canvassed the crowd once again under a hail of rocks, Hussain said, one of the occupants shouted a threat at them: "Are you asking for it?"

Two of the cars did a U-turn at the top of the road, he said, and gunned their engines, shifting their gears rapidly as they reached a speed he estimated at 70 mph (110 kph).

"The first car cut extremely close to the crowd but didn't hit anyone. We all were running for cover, but there were too many people and nowhere to go," he said.

"Some people didn't see the second car coming. It went deeper into the footpath (sidewalk) and struck these three men, all standing in the same spot," he said. "They must have flown 20, 30 feet. One, Shazzad, was dead when he hit the ground. All of them were bloody and unconscious. They never had a chance."

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