Fifteen people have been arrested after “violent scenes” outside a hotel where asylum seekers were staying in Merseyside.
A demonstration descended into chaos outside the Suites Hotel in Ribbers Lane, Prescot, on Friday evening as a police van was set on fire and missiles, including lit fireworks, were thrown at officers.
The police van was also struck with hammers, police say.
Merseyside Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said officers had been made aware of rumours on social media prior to the protest about about an alleged incident earlier in the week “when a man made inappropriate advances towards a teenage girl”.
She said a man in his 20s had been arrested “in another part of the country”, but subsequently released following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The chief constable stressed the investigation was ongoing and warned of the harm speculation and misinformation could do both to the outcome of the inquiry and people’s behaviour.
She said there was “no excuse” for Friday’s violence and said a dispersal order was in force for the area, aimed at preventing further trouble.
Police said they had been facilitating a peaceful protest and counter demonstration, when others turned up who “were only interested in causing trouble through violence and intimidation, without any thought, or care, for other members of the public, or our officers”.
A total of 13 men and two women, between the ages of 13 and 54, were arrested on suspicion of violent disorder, said police.
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said she was among up to 120 people from pro-migrant groups who went to the scene in reaction to the protest to show support for the asylum seekers.
Speaking to Sky News, the 52-year-old said: “I was very shocked at how violent it got… to see these kinds of scenes in Liverpool, it broke my heart.”
She added: “It was like a warzone.”
Ch Con Kennedy said condemned those who used the planned protest “to carry out violent and despicable behaviour”.
She said: “They turned up armed with hammers and fireworks to cause as much trouble as they could and their actions could have resulted in members of the public and police officers being seriously injured, or worse.
“Indeed, one of my officers was injured in the line of duty, as were a number of members of the public, and it is only through luck that no one was more seriously injured or worse.”
Eyewitness report: Extra police to remain in the area as tensions rise
Outside the fence of the Suites hotel, an area of blackened road marks the spot protestors set a police van on fire.
From the windows of the hotel migrants peer out. One of them, Ahmed, a teacher who came to the UK from Egypt a month ago, tells us in broken English of his shock at what happened last night.
“We hear UK, safety, welcome,” he says. Asked how he felt as protestors threw missiles outside the hotel, he says: “Afraid, sure, afraid.”
The road outside the hotel is a dead end and with the car park now cordoned off by security, it is mostly just police and journalists in the street.
Occasionally locals turn up to have a look. Two women shout at us reporters to “tell the full story”.
They say they were at the demonstration and insist it was peaceful until a group of men arrived later and caused all the trouble. They believe those men were not locals.
The women say they went to the protest because they had heard migrants were approaching children in the area. When I asked if they had any evidence for their claims, they said it was on social media.
Listening to them is Clare Moseley, who works for the refugee charity Care for Calais and was part of a counter demonstration at the hotel – organised after right-wing groups handed out leaflets in the area about the hotel last weekend.
“If people don’t want asylum seekers in hotels then they need to tell the government to process their claims and let them work,” she says.
“If people, even these ladies who I believe are very misinformed, if they think a crime has been committed then you report it to the police. We do not have mob rule on our streets.”
Police are investigating after claims one video circulated on social media showed a migrant talking to a 15-year-old girl.
But the local MP George Howarth believes anger here has been stoked up by mostly misinformation online.
“There are people there who have got an argument to make which is against asylum in general and they’re using platforms to promote the idea that there’s a massive problem with asylum seekers interfering with children or young girls,” he says.
“The police say there’s no evidence that that’s happening on any scale at all. What reports they have had they’re investigating and people should wait until they’ve investigated them.”
A far-right organisation recently delivered leaflets in the area and posted a video claiming locals are outraged that migrants are living in the hotel.
The police have said extra officers will remain in the area as it’s clear the tension that caused the violence has not gone away.
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She added: “We understand that prior to this happening last night there were rumours, and misinformation, being circulated on social media following an incident earlier in the week.
“Detectives are investigating reports of an incident which occurred in Kirkby on Monday, 6 February, when a man made inappropriate advances toward a teenage girl.”
‘Speculation can damage the outcome of investigations’
Confirming a man had been arrested but subsequently released with no further action on CPS advice, Ch Con Kennedy said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that this is very much an ongoing investigation, and we would urge anyone who witnessed this incident, or who has any information, which could help us bring the offender to justice, to come forward.
“Social media speculation, misinformation and rumour can actually damage the outcome of investigations and cause unnecessary fear and consequent behaviour, so I would continue to ask people to be mindful of the damage that such actions can cause.
“We understand the concern that an incident can cause but I can assure you that the investigation is ongoing and we are doing everything we can to bring the offender to justice.”
‘Shameful and appalling scenes’
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she condemned the “appalling disorder” in Knowsley.
“The alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation,” she posted on Twitter.
“Thank you to @MerseyPolice officers for keeping everyone safe.”
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper responded: “The shameful and appalling scenes in Knowsley show how far-right groups are using social media to organise and promote violence.
“Everyone should support Merseyside Police in dealing with extremism and violence.
“The Home Secretary is wrong to dismiss far-right threats for political reasons.
“Instead she should be championing vigilance against all kinds of extremism.”