LONDON— Prime Minister David Cameron, facing a defining crisis of his premiership, promised on Thursday to crack down on street gangs as a national priority and he would also explore curbs on the use of social media tools if these were being used to plot "violence, disorder and criminality."
The British leader said he would keep a higher police presence of 16,000 officers on London streets through the weekend and would consider calling in troops for secondary roles in future unrest to free up frontline police.
"The fightback has well and truly begun," he told an emergency session of parliament, acknowledging that police numbers and tactics had been inadequate at the outset of the violence which spread from London to other major cities.
"As to the lawless minority, the criminals who've taken what they can get, I say this: We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done," the prime minister said.
Cameron is under pressure to ease austerity plans, toughen policing and do more for inner-city communities, even as economic malaise grips a nation whose social and perhaps racial tensions exploded in four nights of bewildering mayhem.
Skirting the hot issue of police funding cuts, Cameron authorised more power for the police, including the right to demand the removal of masks or face coverings if their wearers were suspected of crime.
Cameron, who has already authorised police to use baton rounds and water cannon where necessary, said social media is a target if it is used to spur violence.
"This is not about poverty, it's about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities," Cameron said.
He promised to compensate people whose property was damaged by rioters, even if they were uninsured.
PUBLIC FURY OVER LOOTING
The riots will cost insurers more than 200 million pounds ($320 million), the Association of British Insurers estimated.
Cameron had ordered a rare recall of parliament from its summer recess to debate the unrest which flared first in north London after police shot dead an Afro-Caribbean man. That disturbance then mutated into widespread looting and violence.
Britain's finance minister, George Osborne, was also due to address parliament amid concern the rioting could damage confidence in the economy and in London, one of the world's biggest financial centres and venue for next year's Olympics.
With the public seething over the looting of anything from baby clothes to televisions, Cameron said criminal street gangs were at the heart of the violence. "Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes," he said.
Arguing that police, local government and voluntary workers needed to work together to stop inner-city street gangs, he said: "I want this to be a national priority."
Cameron, who waited two days before returning from holiday to deal with the crisis, has denied the unrest was linked to planned government spending cuts, mostly not yet implemented.
But community leaders say inequality, cuts to public services and youth unemployment also fed into the violence in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other multi-ethnic cities.
"Blacks, Asians, whites, we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another?" said Tariq Jahan, whose son was one of three Muslim men run over by a car and killed while apparently protecting property in Birmingham.
"Step forward if you want to lose your sons, otherwise calm down and go home, please," he said.
Many Britons are appalled at the scenes on their streets, from the televised mugging of an injured teenager to a photograph of a Polish woman leaping from a burning building.
MORAL HIGH GROUND
But occupying the moral high ground is tricky in a country where some lawmakers and senior policemen have succumbed to material greed with expenses and bribery scandals, expecting to get away with it, and top bankers have taken huge bonuses even as the taxpayer has had to bail out financial institutions.
As the clear-up proceeds, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government must find quick fixes to avoid further unrest while also addressing longer-term problems.
A surge in police numbers -- and heavy rain in many places -- helped calm streets on Wednesday night, but the previous episodes of often unchecked disorder have embarrassed the authorities and exhausted emergency services.
Businessmen and residents had come together to protect their areas. Police in some areas complained vigilantes were only complicating their task and asked people to stay at home.
Police have arrested more than 1,200 people across England, filling cells and forcing courts to work through the night to process hundreds of cases. Among those charged were a teaching assistant, a charity worker and an 11-year-old boy.
Cameron's view of the rioters as thrill-seeking thugs who are indicative of a breakdown in Britain's social fabric and morals has struck a chord with many people.
Others point to chronic tensions between police and youth, a dearth of opportunities for children from disadvantaged areas and visible inequalities where the wealthy often live in elegant houses just yards away from run-down city estates.
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.