Australian state parliament passes laws to crack down on race rioters

New South Wales state parliament passed emergency laws Thursday empowering police to crack down on race rioters after several days and nights of unrest plagued Sydney's southern beach suburbs. In one of Australia's worst outbreaks of racial violence, a mob of 5,000 white youths, many of them drunk, descended on Sydney's southern Cronulla Beach on Sunday, fought a series of skirmishes with police and attacked people who appeared to be of Arab descent.

The disturbances continued for three nights, escalating into retaliatory attacks and vandalism on churches, prompting New South Wales parliament to halt its summer recess for an emergency session Thursday.

The new police powers will come into effect once the governor grants his approval, likely later Thursday. Under the law, police will be able to cordon off trouble spots and prevent vehicles from entering those areas for up to 48 hours. They will also be allowed to stop and search people and vehicles, and seize vehicles and cell phones for up to seven days.

Police have also been given the power to prevent bars in trouble spots from selling alcohol for up to two days and to declare alcohol-free zones in the city. Parliament also increased the maximum sentence for rioting from 10 years to 15 years and the sentence for affray was doubled to 10 years.

Prime Minister John Howard said he supports the new laws. "The community believes that police should have the capacity," Howard said, "to move people on who are a potential nuisance."

On Thursday night, the area around Cronulla was mostly quiet. Extra police were on duty at Cronulla, while at nearby Brighton-Le-Sands, scene of a racially motivated stabbing Sunday, there were few police and no gathering crowds.

Police fear more violence this weekend and say an extra 1,000 officers will be deployed to Sydney's southern suburbs on Saturday and 1,500 more on Sunday.

Around the rest of Australia, a series of text messages, many of them thought to be hoaxes, forced police to plan to beef up their presence over the weekend. Extra police will be deployed at Adelaide's popular Glenelg Beach and in Perth, Western Australia. On the popular Gold Coast international tourism strip in Queensland, state Premier Peter Beattie said extra police would be on duty in the region.

On Wednesday, Sydney police arrested 11 suspects on charges including possession of offensive weapons such as baseball bats, brass knuckles, a metal pole and a wooden club. New South Wales state Premier Morris Iemma said the new laws in his state were designed to protect the silent majority of law-abiding Australians from hoodlums. "As long as these thugs, these hooligans, these hotheads and these criminals disrespect the law, as long as they refuse to show respect and responsibility, these powers will be used to the fullest extent," he said in parliament, reports the AP. I.L.

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