Unions condemn violence at British anti-cuts demo

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Trade union organisers of a protest against austerity cuts in London have condemned rioters who went on the rampage after the rally, attacking police and smashing up shops in a night of violence.

At least 201 people were arrested and 84 people were hurt when a small group of "criminal" demonstrators broke away from Saturday's main rally, which was the biggest in the capital since protests against the Iraq war in 2003.

A group of several hundred masked rioters attacked the iconic Ritz Hotel, occupied a luxury food store, smashed up shops and banks and started a bonfire in historic Trafalgar Square before police finally contained them.

The original march drew more than a quarter of a million health workers, firefighers, teachers and their families, including children, to oppose the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition's austerity measures.

It was hailed as a success by organisers the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents many British unions and more than six million workers, but there was disappointment at the violence which broke out later.

TUC head Brendan Barber said he "bitterly regretted" the violence and hoped it would not detract from the success of the march.

"I don't think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the government," he said.

Clashes in Trafalgar Square, the site of the famous Nelson's Column and four huge bronze lions, continued into the early hours of Sunday with police saying they came under "sustained attack" from bottle-throwing rioters.

Police on Sunday launched a probe into the violence and a team of investigators was reviewing evidence collected from police officers and CCTV cameras.

Commander Bob Broadhurst of Scotland Yard, who led the police operation, blasted a "group of criminals" who "decided to -- on their own steam -- attack buildings in central London and attack police officers."

Several hundred black-clad protesters covering their faces with scarves hurled fireworks, petrol bombs and paint at police, AFP reporters saw. Clothes store Topshop and banks HSBC and Lloyds had their windows smashed.

A group of protesters occupied luxury food store Fortnum and Mason and sprayed graffiti on the building until police sealed off the premises and arrested those coming out.

Thirty-one police officers and 53 members of the public were injured in the violence, police said. Sixteen members of the public and 11 police needed hospital treatment.

About 4,500 police officers were deployed for the protest after several British student rallies descended into chaos last year, with one culminating in protesters damaging the car carrying heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The violent end to Saturday's rally came after TUC organisers said between 250,000 and 300,000 people had protested peacefully earlier.

Many families with children were among the protesters and the air was filled with the low-pitched bellow of vuvuzela trumpets.

The march started by the river Thames, passed the Houses of Parliament and Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street residence before ending in a rally in Hyde Park addressed by opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.

Since coming to power in May, the coalition announced cuts worth £81 billion ($131 billion, 92 billion euros) over five years to slash a record public deficit it blames on the previous Labour government.

The cuts involve most government departments, with the loss of 300,000 public service jobs and pay freezes for civil servants.

© 2011 AFP

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