LONDON - Britain will not let a "culture of fear" take over its streets, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Wednesday, saying police have drawn up contingency plans to use water cannon if necessary to remove rioters from the streets.
Thousands of extra police officers on the streets kept a nervous London quiet after three nights of rioting, but looting flared in Manchester and Birmingham, where a murder probe was opened after three men were killed in a hit-and-run reportedly as they took to the streets to deter potential rioters.
"We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order onto our streets," Cameron said in a sombre televised statement. "Nothing is off the table" — including water cannon, commonly used in Northern Ireland but never deployed in mainland Britain.
Cameron has recalled Parliament from its summer recess for an emergency debate on the riots Thursday.
An eerie calm prevailed in the capital Wednesday, where hundreds of shops were shuttered early or boarded up Tuesday night as a precaution, but unrest spread across England on a fourth night of violence by brazen crowds of young people.
Scenes of ransacked stores, torched cars and blackened buildings have frightened and outraged Britons just a year before their country is to host next summer's Olympic Games, bringing demands for a tougher response from law enforcement. Police across the country have made almost 1,200 arrests — including 800 in London — since the violence broke out in the capital on Saturday.
Armoured vehicles and convoys of police vans backed up some 16,000 officers on duty — almost triple the number who were out Monday night. The show of force seems to have worked — there were no reports of major trouble in London on Tuesday night, although there were scores of arrests.
"What happened in London last night was, when community leaders and the police came together, there were significant arrests," said police deputy assistant chief constable Stephen Kavanagh. "Some looters were taken away before they got into doing anything, but it was that joint action that made the difference."
London courts worked through the night to process all those charged. Defendants appearing Wednesday included a 31-year-old primary school worker who admitted looting an electronics store, and a 15-year-old boy originally from Ukraine accused of throwing stones at police.
The violence has revived debate about the Conservative-led government's austerity measures, which will slash 80 billion pounds from public spending by 2015 to reduce the country's swollen budget deficit.
Cameron's government has slashed police budgets as part of the cuts. A report last month said the cuts will mean 16,000 fewer police officers by 2015.
London mayor Boris Johnson — like Cameron, a Conservative — broke with the government to say such cuts are wrong.
"That case was always pretty frail and it has been substantially weakened," he told BBC radio. "This is not a time to think about making substantial cuts in police numbers."
Outside the capital, more looting was reported Tuesday night but not on the scale of Monday's violence in London.
Some 250 people were arrested after two days of violence in Birmingham, and police launched a murder investigation into the deaths of three men hit by a car. Residents said the dead men, aged 20 to 31, were members of Birmingham's South Asian community who had been patrolling their neighbourhood to keep it safe from looters.
"They lost their lives for other people, doing the job of the police," said witness Mohammed Shakiel, 34. "They weren't standing outside a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or a church — they were standing outside shops where everybody goes. They were protecting the community."
Chris Sims, chief constable of West Midlands Police, said a man had been arrested on suspicion of murder.
"The information we have at the moment would support the idea that the car was deliberately driven," he said, appealing for calm. "My concern would be that that single incident doesn't lead to a much wider level of distress and even violence between different communities."
In the northwestern city of Manchester, hundreds of youths rampaged through the city centre, hurling bottles and stones at police and vandalizing stores. A women's clothing store on the city's main shopping street was set ablaze, along with a disused library in nearby Salford.
Manchester assistant chief constable Garry Shewan said it was simple lawlessness.
"We want to make it absolutely clear — they have nothing to protest against," he said. "There is nothing in a sense of injustice and there has been no spark that has led to this."
Britain's soccer authorities were talking with police to see whether this weekend's season-opening matches of the Premier League could still go ahead in London. A Wednesday match between England and the Netherlands at London's Wembley stadium was cancelled.
Britain's riots began Saturday when an initially peaceful protest over a police shooting in London's Tottenham neighbourhood turned violent. That clash has morphed into a general lawlessness in London and several other cities that police have struggled to halt.
While the rioters have run off with goods every teen wants — new sneakers, bikes, electronics and leather goods — they also have torched stores apparently just to see something burn. They were left virtually unchallenged in several neighbourhoods, and when police did arrive they often were able to flee quickly and regroup.
Some residents stood guard to protect their neighbourhoods — Sikhs protected their temple in Southall, west London, and some 1,000 far-right members reportedly took to the streets to deter rioters.
In the central England city of Nottingham, police said rioters hurled firebombs though the window of a police station, and set fire to a school and a vehicle. Some 90 people were arrested.
In the northern city of Liverpool, about 200 youths hurled missiles at police and firefighters in a second night of unrest, and 44 arrests were reported.
There also were minor clashes in the central and western England locations of Leicester, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Bristol, and Gloucester.
In London, hundreds of stores, offices, pubs and restaurants closed early Tuesday. Normally busy streets were eerily quiet and the smell of plywood filled the air as business owners rushed to secure their shops before nightfall.
In east London's Bethnal Green district, convenience store owner Adnan Butt, 28, said the situation was still tense.
"People are all at home — they're scared," he said.