Racial tensions erupted into violence on a Sydney beach yesterday when some 5,000 people, some yelling racist chants, converged to defend their beach from what they believe are youth gangs of Middle East background.
Local surfers and beachgoers rallied at Cronulla Beach after two young surf lifesavers were attacked last Sunday by a group of young men from Sydney's western suburbs.
As the crowd moved along the beach and foreshore, one man on the back of a truck shouted: "No more Lebs (Lebanese)" - a chant picked up by the group around him.
Others carried Australian flags and dressed in Australian sports shirts, yelled: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie ... Oi, Oi, Oi."
Fighting started breaking out around lunchtime as the crowd began drinking heavily and targeted people of Middle East appearance. At one stage an ambulance taking people to hospital was pelted by full bottles of beer.
Police arrest six people for offensive behavior and assault and blocked roads into the beach in southern Sydney, which was littered with broken beer bottles.
"The behavior that has been seen down here at Cronulla today is nothing short of disgusting and disgraceful. It is certainly not the Australian way," said Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Goodwin.
He said some of those attacked were of Arabic background but had been born in Australia.
Cronulla Beach was the scene of two violent incidents last week - an attack on two lifeguards on Sunday and a brawl later in the week in which youths turned on a media crew.
Following the attacks on the volunteer lifesavers, a mobile telephone text campaign started, calling on Cronulla locals to rally yesterday to protect their beach.
One of the messages urged "Aussies" to take revenge against "Lebs and wogs" or Lebanese and non-Australians. It said: "Bring your mates and let's show them that this is our beach and they are never welcome."
In response a text campaign urged youths from western Sydney to be at Cronulla this Sunday to protect their mates.
All week police and politicians have been calling for calm.
Police issued a stern warning that "no one owns the beach" in an effort to stop a viligante response to visitors.
Sydney's Islamic community blamed the violence at Cronulla Beach on "racist and irresponsible" sections of the media which turned a common youth issue into an issue of ethnicity.
"One wonders how much further this can go before those people on talk back radio become more responsible," said Kaysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia.
"Innocent people have been bashed as a result of this simmering racial hatred. This is something that does not belong in Australia," he said.
New South Wales state premier Morris Iemma said yesterday that he wanted "thugs" who assault lifeguards to face the maximum 25 years in jail. Assault penalties range from two to 25 years, depending on the offender's intent and the damage caused.
"Those who selflessly give up their time to save people in distress on the beach should not be considered easy targets by thugs and hooligans," Iemma said in a statement.