By GUY CHAZAN
BIRMINGHAM-Three Birmingham men died early Wednesday as they sought to protect local businesses from rioters, showing how the violence that began four days ago in London and spread to the U.K.’s other big cities has stoked long-simmering ethnic tensions in some of the country’s most racially diverse communities.
Mourning locals at the scene where a car hit and killed three men Wednesday in the Winson Green, area of Birmingham, England.
The three men who died, all Asians, were hit by a carload of suspected looters. West Midlands police arrested a man near the scene and launched a murder inquiry. Witnesses said the man, the vehicle’s driver, is black.
The deaths capped rioting in the early hours Wednesday that was quelled in London but spilled seemingly at random to other parts of the U.K. In Birmingham, the deaths led to an outpouring of anger from the city’s large population of Asians.
“People are saying it’s a race issue now-blacks against Asians,” said Mykel Douglas, a black youth worker and resident of Winson Green, the working-class district northwest of Birmingham city center where the incident occurred. “It’s like the ethnic groups are at war with each other.”
Outside the family home of one of the dead men, identified by local media as Haroon Jahan, a group of young Asians-mainly ethnic Pakistanis-vowed vengeance. “People are very angry,” said a bearded man in a shalwar kameez who declined to give his name. “There’s going to be retaliation. An eye for an eye.”
West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims appealed for calm, saying he hoped the incident wouldn’t lead to wider distrust or violence between communities. Haroon Jahan’s father, Tariq Jahan, said the event was “not a race issue” and that locals shouldn’t resort to vigilantism and settling scores.
“It’s already bad enough with what we are seeing on the streets now without other people taking the law into their own hands,” Mr. Jahan told the BBC.
The wave of unrest sweeping Britain broke out Saturday in the north London neighborhood of Tottenham, where a peaceful vigil to protest the police killing of a local man, Mark Duggan, degenerated into the worst wave of riots and looting in the capital in 30 years. The unrest then spread to other underprivileged, multiethnic parts of London andsubsequentlyto other cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
In Manchester, hundreds of youths looted shops and set fire to cars and buildings on Tuesday. Local police said they had arrested 113 people, mostly on suspicion of criminal damage. Firefighters said they responded to 155 fires in the city. About 100 businesses and some police vehicles were seriously damaged, officials said.
“What we have seen are serious and unprecedented levels of violence and criminality on Greater Manchester’s streets,” said assistant chief constable Garry Shewan, who described the events as the “most sickening scenes” of his career.
In the early stages of the unrest, the violence was largely confined to poor areas marked by high unemployment and social deprivation. That pattern has shifted at times, however, as riots broke out in Gloucester, a market town in western England normally immune to social unrest. Nine people were arrested after a gang of youths smashed shop windows and threw bottles and rocks at police vehicles.
While most of the violence in London was characterized by looting, particularly of stores selling sports clothing and electrical goods, outside the capital it took on an antiauthoritarian tone.
In the central English city of Nottingham, five police stations were attacked with firebombs, with one set on fire. Police cars and a high school were also targeted.
Dr. Judith Rowbotham, an expert in criminal justice studies at Nottingham Trent University, said relations between the police and some local people have been strained in recent times. “There is a feeling that the police are not there to serve the community,” she said.
Nottingham braced for more on Wednesday afternoon. “People are going home early and checking whether they know where their kids are,” said Helen Feeley, working in a news shop next to the boarded police station that had been firebombed. Police stationed themselves near a housing project where much of the violence has taken place, as young boys on BMX bikes circled at a distance.
“None of this is going to stop unless there is some payback to the police,” said a boy of 15 who declined to be named.
Violence in Birmingham’s Winson Green area began Monday night when gangs tried to ransack a gasoline station on the main shopping street and stole a TV set from an Indian social club. The next day, a group of about 40 young men came out to try to avert further trouble, while local businesses closed early.
Tofsirul Islam, a 22-year-old student who lives nearby, said he suddenly saw a black car drive down the middle of the road at high speed, directly into the crowd of vigilantes. He said the three men flew into the air as the car rammed them. Its windshield was completely shattered, its fender mangled and its hood sprang up, he said.
“He could have slowed down or swerved to avoid people,” Mr. Islam said. “Maybe he didn’t intend to kill them, but he was definitely looking for trouble.”
Mr. Islam claimed the driver and his two passengers-who he said were all Afro-Caribbean-had come to the area to loot shops. West Midlands police refused to comment, saying it was too early to connect the incident to the disturbances that affected other parts of Birmingham on Tuesday night.
Residents of Winson Green spoke highly of the three men, named by local media as Mr. Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir-saying they were familiar faces in the community. “Shahzad was a nice guy who never looked for trouble and never would’ve harmed anyone,” said Mr. Islam, who knew him. Mr. Islam’s brother Shofiqal, who said he went to school with Shahzad, described him as “intelligent and well-liked by most of the other students.”
Locals gathering for a memorial service for the three men at the Faiz ul Quran mosque and madrasa were outraged that the deaths had come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Winson Green, where white working-class families live cheek-by-jowl with immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Poland in cramped red-brick Victorian terraces, has always been relatively peaceful, residents say.
Birmingham’s black British and South Asian communities have long had tension-marred relations. In 2005 there were full-scale intercommunal clashes after a pirate radio station DJ aired allegations that a black teenage girl had been gang-raped by Asian men.
Still, the latest disturbances surprised many. “I don’t know why this is happening to us,” said Mohammaed Saghir, manager of the Punjab Kebab House. “This isn’t London.”