Gun terror on London streets

By Mark Townsend, Ned Temko

LONDON - Shortly after 4am on Saturday, armed police officers were told to end their patrol of south London. They had made three arrests, but no fresh names had been added to a rollcall of shooting victims, including three teenagers, this month.

Maybe the officers from Operation Neon were getting on top of things.

An hour later, just before dawn, two shots rang out 7km away.

Three figures had approached a man sitting in a grey Fiat Punto in Hackney, north-east London. A shot was fired. The man tried to run, stumbled and fell. The three men returned and shot him again. Then they walked calmly away.

By breakfast time, three men had been taken to hospitals in Manchester after two shootings.

In one attack, an 18-year-old man was hit in the back while walking through the notorious Moss Side district, metres from where a 15-year-old was murdered last year. Soon after, two men were shot in the equally infamous Longsight area.

After the deaths of five people in the past fortnight, Saturday's shootings seemed to be further confirmation that Britain's inner cities are moving ever closer to urban America.

As forensics officers from Operation Trident, which tackles black-on-black crime, inspected the riddled Punto on Homerton High Street, mourners gathered again outside the south London home of Billy Cox.

The 15-year-old died on Valentine's Day and friends were still laying flowers at the ground-floor flat where he was executed in his bedroom. No one has been arrested.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the murders "horrific, shocking and ... tragic beyond belief".

But he rejected Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron's claim that they showed society was "quite broken".

"This tragedy is not a metaphor for the state of British society, still less for the state of British youth today, the huge majority of whom are responsible, law-abiding people," Blair said.

Home Secretary John Reid said the Government would consider strengthening gun-crime laws.

Scotland Yard officers have noted an increasing number of teenagers carrying guns.

Cox's murder followed the shooting of 16-year-old James Smartt-Ford at nearby Streatham Ice Rink on February 4 and Michael Dosunmu, 15, at his Peckham home three days later.

Two other murders have occurred this month in a a 2sq km area of south London.

Extra officers were again drafted on to London's southern streets to "actively target key individuals" from at least seven gangs.

The number of shootings has raised broader questions about Britain's youth, such as social and family breakdown, rap culture's glamorisation of violence, the availability of firearms and that most recurrent theme, the destructiveness of drugs.

Billy Cox was a dealer. He was killed by a rival dealer whom he knew. Saturday's murder in Hackney is believed to be linked to crack cocaine. Everyone is fighting for a bit of the highly lucrative drugs turf.

Scotland Yard officials admit privately that they have to start developing a "really clear understanding" of how gangs operate and, in particular, how they recruit their teenage foot soldiers. Certainly their influence and numbers appear to be on the rise.

The frequency with which the London Metropolitan Police is required to send its 552 armed officers on to the streets would, says its superintendent, Bert Moore, surprise most of the city's residents.

The unit received 11,725 calls during December from worried residents who believed they had seen a person carrying a gun or had reason to believe armed officers were required. Of these, 2232 incidents required armed officers to be sent.

Yet amid claims that Britain has a "Johannesburg culture", in which killers can march into houses and gun down enemies with impunity, officers continue to urge perspective.

Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair opened a briefing last Friday with a reminder that London's homicide rate is a third that of New York and a 15th of the Los Angeles rate.

But the number of killings has also provoked questions over the nature of the success of Operation Trident. Some experts believe it has been too effective, driving older offenders off the streets and leaving teenagers to carry firearms with a chaotic mixture of danger, bravado and naivety.

The biggest worry, say police, is the age of offenders. A third of London gun crime victims are teenagers.

The Metropolitan Police seized 909 firearms and more than 16,000 rounds of ammunition last year, and no one knows for sure how many guns are on Britain's streets.

Superintendent Leroy Logan, who has led moves to tackle gang activity in Hackney, sees a link between "gangsta" rap music and violence.

He said: "American gangster-glamour is having a negative impact and we cannot underestimate its influence.'

Logan said the community and police must start tackling the producers and distributors of a culture that glamorises violence.

But the cycle of violence shows no sign of slowing. Among the messages left to Billy Cox are those demanding retribution.

"We will get the peepz you hated," said one.


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