Australian police urge public to stay away from beaches in Sydney

Australian police have urged the public to stay away from beaches in Sydney and in the neighboring cities of Newcastle and Wollongong over the weekend because of threats of gang violence. New South Wales state Police Commissioner Ken Moroney made the warning Friday a day after he invited the public to return to Sydney beaches despite a spate of violence this week between white Australians and predominantly ethnic Lebanese gangs.

"I simply seek a level of cooperation from individuals and from families who are traveling to these locations that on this occasion they assist the police by not going," he said.

Police promised to mount the biggest security operation in Sydney's trouble-plagued southern suburbs this weekend since the city hosted the Olympic Games in 2000 after a mob of 5,000 white youths, many of them drunk, descended on Sydney's Cronulla Beach on Sunday, fought a series of skirmishes with police and attacked people who appeared to be of Arab descent.

Moroney said intelligence received from the public indicated gangs would target Cronulla again this weekend, as well as beaches north to Newcastle and south of Sydney at Wollongong, a stretch of about 300 kilometers (185 miles) of coast.

The state parliament passed emergency laws on Thursday empowering police to crack down on race rioters after several days and nights of unrest in southern beach suburbs.

Police said Friday that a task force had already used their extended powers overnight to stop traffic headed for Cronulla, searching more than 100 cars at check points on major roads.

Police also have new powers to cordon off entire suburbs and to stop bars from selling alcohol for up to 48 hours as well as to seize vehicles and mobile phones for up to seven days. But Australian Council for Civil Liberties secretary Cameron Murphy said the new police powers could be used as easily to prevent political protests as racial violence.

"I'm concerned that the new laws are excessive and there is not an effective system in place to ensure that they are used appropriately," Murphy told The Associated Press.

"There is really nothing that would distinguish a peaceful but unauthorized protest from this sort of racial riot and the power to shut down licensed premises is quite dangerous and makes way for police corruption," he added.

But Police Minister Carl Scully said the new laws were necessary because the government was taking seriously the threat of an escalation of violence this weekend. He said 1,500 police officers, about 10 percent of the state's police resources, would be deployed in the southern suburbs Sunday to keep the peace in Sydney's biggest police operation since the 2000 Olympics.

"They are draconian powers, they are substantial increases in police powers and we've done it deliberately because the commissioner of police said operational front line police needed them," Scully told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett and former Midnight Oil front man turned federal lawmaker Peter Garrett led a group of Australian celebrities who appealed for racial tolerance Friday at a media event at the beachside suburb of Coogee, reports the AP. I.L.

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