Gangs of white Australian men have gone on a rampage at a beach in Sydney, attacking people of Middle Eastern appearance and damaging cars and shops. The violence, sparked by an attack a week ago on two lifeguards - allegedly by young Muslim men - has been condemned by Australia's political leaders as "cowardly" and "sickening."
The clean-up has begun after an ugly day and night of violence in Sydney. While dozens of cars have been damaged and more than 30 people including paramedics and police injured, the real casualty might be Australia's race relations.
This country is proud of its multicultural society, but tolerance and harmony were nowhere to be seen during the rampage, which began Sunday at Sydney's Cronulla Beach.
Beach-goers of Middle Eastern appearance were forced to flee into shops and hotels as thousands of white youths, many of them drunk, chased them and shouted racial abuse. One Muslim woman reportedly had her head scarf ripped off by the mob.
New South Wales police Chief Ken Moroney said the attack on the woman was shocking.
"Never in my working life did I ever imagine a mob - a drunken mob - turning on a woman," said Ken Moroney. "An innocent woman who happened to stray into their path."
Prime Minister John Howard said such violence would not be tolerated.
"Attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable," said John Howard.
However, he dismissed the suggestion that his government's recent warnings about home-grown terrorists had caused tension between white Australians and Muslims.
The attacks followed allegations that youths of Lebanese background had attacked two lifeguards at the beach, and had harassed local women.
Around 16 people were arrested during the violence, and on Monday, the government announced that a special police task force had been set up to find the mob's ringleaders.
Senior police officers believe that white supremacists may have been responsible for fueling the hysteria.
Australia's Muslim community has complained of hostility and discrimination since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been exacerbated by terrorist bombings, carried out by Muslim extremists in Indonesia, that have killed dozens of Australians.
Islamic leaders have accused the Australian media of whipping up racial tensions. They are also worried that new counter-terrorism laws introduced by Canberra will unfairly target Australia's 300,000 Muslims, a suggestion the government has denied.