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Stockholm in relative calm after five nights of rioting

The capital was quieter after nightly rampages that left buildings and vehicles ablaze, violence that has shaken the country's self-image as a tolerant place.

May 24, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A passerby checks out the debris of burned out cars Thursday in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby after the fourth consecutive night of riots.
A passerby checks out the debris of burned out cars Thursday in the Stockholm… (Fredrik Sandberg / AFP/Getty…)

LONDON — The streets of Stockholm were quieter late Friday after five consecutive nights of rioting that rocked the Swedish capital and shook the Scandinavian country's self-image as a tolerant, liberal place.

Since Sunday, sections of northwest and south Stockholm have been lighted up with the glow of fires started by rock-throwing rioters, apparently protesting a fatal shooting by police last week.

Schools, shops, a library and about 150 vehicles were set ablaze during the nightly rampages, which some commentators say are rooted in feelings of despair and disenfranchisement among the city's poor and its growing immigrant population.

But as of midnight Friday, the streets had calmed considerably, authorities said. Only a few small fires were reported, and no arrests were made after the nearly 30 from the previous days.

However, there were reports in Swedish media of an outbreak of violence in the city of Orebro, about 120 miles west of Stockholm, where masked youths set fire to a few vehicles and hurled stones at police.

Kjell Lindgren, a spokesman for the Stockholm police, said earlier Friday that the force was doubling its deployment in riot-torn areas to about 350 officers, including reinforcements from other parts of the country. A few officers had suffered minor injuries earlier in the week, when the situation had grown "rather wild."

Swedes have been shocked by the images of destruction and by the convulsion of anger and fear in their usually easygoing capital. Television video showed smoking husks of cars on otherwise ordinary-looking streets.

The unrest has raised uncomfortable questions in a once-homogeneous society now dealing with a relatively recent influx of immigrants, many of them from war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise and has become a political force in the far-right Swedish Democrats party.

The proximate cause of the rioting was the May 13 death of a man in his late 60s in the Husby district of Stockholm, a predominantly immigrant community where the unemployment rate runs higher than the national average. Police say the man had threatened people on the street with a machete-like weapon and then continued to pose a danger after going inside an apartment building, where officers shot him.

But the incident roused anger in an area where residents have complained of police abuse and racism and of institutional neglect. Violence erupted Sunday and escalated the following two or three nights.

Witnesses told Swedish news outlets that some officers who responded to the unrest used racial slurs and called residents "monkeys" and "rats." Lindgren said there would be an independent investigation of the accusations.

"We see a government whose answer to social problems is more police. We see police brutality and harassment in our areas," Megafonen, a local activist organization, said in an editorial published Friday in the Aftonbladet newspaper. "We call on everyone in the area to organize themselves for justice. Then our cars shall not burn; then stones shall not be thrown."

News reports said firefighters responded to 70 incidents Thursday night, down from 90 the previous night.

Of the 29 people arrested as of Friday afternoon, all but one were young men ages 16 to 26, said Lindgren, who warned that more arrests were likely.

During the first couple of nights of rioting, "there was no possibility to make arrests, because it was rather wild," Lindgren said. "But we also have identified criminals that are going to be questioned in the near future.... We got a quite good picture of who they are."

About 15% of Sweden's 9.5 million people are foreign-born, many of them drawn to the Scandinavian country because of its liberal asylum policies for refugees from armed conflict. But absorption and integration have not always been smooth, and critics say that social inequalities across Swedish society as a whole have grown rapidly in recent years, breeding resentment.

Still, few Swedes expected this week's eruption of violence.

In an open letter on Facebook that has received widespread attention, Stockholm firefighter Mattias Lassen asked those who hurled rocks at him and his colleagues why they were doing so.

"Luckily I had my helmet on so the stone only left a large scar in my helmet.... Luckily no one was hurt physically by the stones you threw at us," Lassen wrote. "But you have affected my and my friends' work life forever.... I also have a family that wants to see me again, just like you."

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Washington contributed to this report.

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