Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 14:14 UK

Tensions in Luton concern locals

By Rowan Bridge
BBC Radio 5 Live's Victoria Derbyshire show

Luton protest
Anti-war protesters in March

Luton has seen a number of angry and sometimes violent protests in recent months prompted by Britain's involvement in Iraq.

The situation is of concern to the police and to local communities too.

Chief Superintendent Andy Frost is responsible for the town as divisional commander for Bedfordshire Police.

He said it was easy to pinpoint the watershed moment which created that community friction he is now trying to calm: "I would say the relationship up to the 10th of March this year was very good.

"Communities understood each other, worked with each other and tolerated each other's beliefs.

"Clearly that all changed with the protest march on the 10th… community tension at the moment is quite high."

That date in March was when a small group of Muslim protesters held up banners with statements like "Butchers of Basra" and jeered as the Royal Anglian Regiment marched through the town during a homecoming parade.

Impacted on budget

That protest was followed by counter-demonstrations which led to Asian businesses and residents being attacked by what the police described as "hooligans" dressed in football tops and balaclavas.

The demonstrations have impacted not only on community relations but the police budget.

"We reckon so far that has cost us about £100,000 which we now can't spend on normal policing in Bedfordshire," says Chief Supt Frost.

The cost has come from having to pull in resources from neighbouring constabularies to cope with the scale of the problems.

He said the move was unprecedented: "I can't remember us having to do it on one occasion, let alone three occasions in three months."

Drafting in extra officers may have used up all of Bedfordshire Police's annual allocated overtime budget, Chief Supt Frost continued: "I don't now have the money to run operations around drug dealing, around vehicle crime and so on."

A lot of people vote BNP just because it looks like they will do something

Alex Kyte, Luton resident

Alex Kyte, a gardener who has lived in Luton all his life, said his friends feel that the police should have done more to shut down the Muslim protesters.

"A lot of my friends are tradespeople and they are just simple people and they just want protests of this nature to be got rid of", he said.

"If they see the police doing nothing and feel the government is doing nothing, they'll obviously vote for people who appear to do something.

'All treated equally'

"A lot of people vote BNP just because it looks like they will do something."

Bedfordshire Police said it has treated all lawful groups equally, and demonstrations will be allowed as long as they operate within the law.

The force said protesters who wanted to show their support for the troops were allowed to do so, and officers only intervened when groups intent on causing trouble turned to violence.

Abdul Rahim Malik has lived in Luton for 47 years after coming to the UK as a student.

He seems to know just about everyone in the town's Bury Park and he is aware of heightened tensions.

He showed the BBC the side of the Islamic Centre off Dunstable Road which was attacked at the beginning of May - he suspects this was as a result of the protests.

"Somebody firebombed this Islamic Centre and someone could go and do the same silly thing in some church and so it could stir up and go on for some time", he said "but I think people understand it is part of some extremist groups who are taking advantage of the situation."

We are just asking people to give us a break and let the people of Luton get on with their lives
Ch Supt Andy Frost

The Muslim community in Bury Park itself is losing patience with what it regards as an extremist minority.

Last week locals forced a group trying to set up a stand to move out of the area, chanting "out out out."

The Islamic Centre said in a statement: "Our women feel unsafe on the streets, they can no longer go about their normal errands without fear.

"We hold (the group who wanted to set up a stand) responsible for this insecurity they have brought up on the majority of peaceful Muslims.

"Hence we felt compelled to take this action."

Ultimately, Ch Supt Andy Frost believes the problems in Luton are being exacerbated by outside groups: "A lot of it is from people outside Luton.

"Unfortunately Luton gave people the catalyst on the 10th March, when the army parade got disrupted.

"If that had been in another town in England I think they would be suffering what we are suffering in Luton.

"We are just asking people to give us a break and let the people of Luton get on with their lives."

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Two held during parade protests
10 Mar 09 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts


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