December 17, 2005

Sydney police prowl beaches, rally calls for peace

By Jim Regan

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian police stepped up security
around Sydney's beaches on Sunday, fearing fresh racial
violence after officers manning road-blocks found knives in
cars, and hate messages circulated by mobile phone.

Police patrolled beaches on horseback and set up
checkpoints around some of the city's favorite summer
playgrounds, including Bondi Beach, where a peaceful holiday
mood was edged by fears of fresh violence between whites and
ethnic Lebanese.

"I don't think there will be any trouble today, not with
2,000 cops around," Louise Simpson, a young mother with blonde
hair in pig-tails, said beneath a postcard blue sky on Cronulla
beach, where the violence first erupted a week ago.

"But what's it going to be like in three or four weeks when
the cops go away?" she added as she walked with her husband and
daughter along the beach, with mounted police in the

Cronulla's mainly white beachside community burst into
rioting on December 11 after surfers turned on ethnic Lebanese
youth whom they blamed for a recent attack on beach life

The unrest revealed tensions between Sydney's territorial
surfing sub-culture, united in surfing shorts and wrap-around
sunglasses, and ethnic Lebanese youths from poorer western
Sydney who have become regular beachgoers.

"We got a text message from our boys to come down today,
but we don't want any trouble," said a young ethnic Lebanese
man, Ahmad, who wore a camouflage baseball cap backwards and
long baggy shorts with a mobile phone clipped to them.

"We just want to meet the surfers," said Ahmad who hails
from Punchbowl, a suburb populated by Lebanese immigrants and a
world away from Sydney's wealthier seaside communities.

He showed the text message: "All Arabs unite to let the
Aussies know we can't be pushed around."


Police deployed another 500 police on Sydney beaches on
Sunday, taking the total security cordon to about 2,000, and
reiterated warnings for people to stay away from the seaside.

Overnight, four men attacked a 32-year-old man with an iron
bar near an east Sydney beach, police said, adding they had
seized knives, a hand spear, axe and knuckle-dusters from cars
stopped at seaside check-points.

White supremacists have added to the tension, along with
racist commentary broadcast on talk-back radio, though no one
has been killed or reported seriously injured in the clashes so

The violence has hurt Australia's image and rekindled old
stereotypes of white Australians as racist, opposition Leader
Kim Beazley said in radio and television interviews on Sunday.

"We are not a racist country by any description. We have an
egalitarian culture ... Not everybody knows that overseas," he
said. "They think back to an Australia that they had
stereotyped in the past and these riots fit in with that
stereotype and that does us damage."

In central Sydney, about 2,000 people held a "United
Against Racism" rally, including people who blamed Australia's
involvement in the U.S.-led war on Iraq and in Washington's war
on terrorism for widening the divide between whites and

"I have lived here for a long time but now I feel very
terrified and scared to walk down the street," said Sahar Dib,
44, wearing a headscarf. She and thousands of other Lebanese
fled to Australia in the 1970s when civil war broke out in

Many Australians from both sides of Sydney's cultural and
racial divide are trying to ease tensions, with a
surf-lifesaving club on the Cronulla coast inviting ethnic
Lebanese to join its ranks and asking them to help launch a new
surf boat on Sunday.

Someone had also written "PEACE" in huge letters made from
black electrical tape on the Cronulla sand. Another had
scratched "Sorry" along the high-water mark.

In Bondi, normally packed with sun-worshippers a week
before Christmas, special forces scoured the shallows in an
inflatable boat while police cars prowled the famous promenade.

"Bondi has never been this quiet. It's sad to see such an
icon of Australia not being used because it's here for
everyone," said Dave Byron, taking part in a Hawaiian-themed
barbecue and surfing contest with fellow members of the Bondi
Longboard Club.

(Additional reporting by Michael Perry)