Sydney Police charge suspect with sending offensive text messages to race riots

Police have charged a man with sending offensive text messages inciting violence linked to Sydney's recent race riots, detectives said in a statement Thursday. The 33-year-old man, the first to be charged under federal law for sending messages linked to the unrest via mobile phone, faces a maximum three-year sentence if convicted. Police said they expect to arrest more people who wrote or forwarded such messages in the coming days.

Police said the suspect, whose identity was not released, forwarded two messages to several different people calling for them to meet at two Sydney beaches last Sunday, a week after thousands of white Australians rioted in southern Sydney, attacking men of Middle Eastern appearance.

The police statement did not include the exact wording of the messages. The suspect was scheduled to appear in court Feb. 1. Police say a blizzard of mobile phone text messages was sent in the days before the Dec. 11 riot urging people to mass at Sydney's Cronulla beach to protest the beating a week earlier of two volunteer life savers. The protest erupted into a race riot and sparked two nights of retaliatory attacks by youths of Middle Eastern appearance, also spurred by text messages.

In the days after the violence, more messages circulated in Sydney and other Australian cities urging violence on Dec. 18. Police Commander Dennis Bray told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that detectives and phone companies were trying to trace the texts.

"We've been working in the last week in gathering and analyzing information we've obtained from the carriers and this fellow was identified as one fellow that had been sending messages and we've acted," he said. "There will be more, but at this stage he unfortunately was the first one."

About 2,000 officers patrolled Sydney beaches last weekend, stopping and searching cars and confiscating mobile phones in an unprecedented operation credited with preventing a repeat of the violence. Some 800 police are being deployed to Sydney beaches for most of the southern hemisphere summer, which lasts through February, to stamp out racial violence.

Prime Minister John Howard said Thursday he believes the violence will not flare up again. "I really am quite optimistic that people will see that nothing is ever achieved by violence," he told reporters in Sydney.

Police also said they had charged a 17-year-old man Thursday with attacking two men on a train at Cronulla, in a beating that newspapers splashed on their front pages the day after the Dec. 11 riot.

The youth was jailed and ordered to appear in court Friday on charges of riot and affray. He is the fifth man to be charged in the train attack, police said in a statement.

Also Thursday, authorities in Sydney said they planned to launch an advertising blitz to lure people back to Sydney's beaches. Some businesses such as cafes and bars near the troubled beaches have reported a slump in takings by up to 75 percent since the clashes. New South Wales state Tourism Minister Sandra Nori announced print and radio advertisements featuring sports stars to let the public know it is safe to return. "Obviously, there was a significant impact, people did stay away from the beaches," Nori told reporters at Cronulla. "Now it's time to return to these local beach communities to show your support,” reports the AP. I.L.

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