Community leaders appealed for calm ahead of protests by the English Defence League
Hundreds of right-wing demonstrators are set to descend upon the town centre on Saturday afternoon. A rival protest by the left-wing group Unite Against Fascism was also set to take place in Deeplish – sparking fears of clashes between the opposing factions. But faith leaders were urging people to stay calm, while the police had vowed to clamp down on any violence.
Mushtaq Ahmed, chairman of Rochdale Council of Mosques, said that he had asked Muslims not to join in during Friday prayers yesterday. He told the Observer: "We are asking people not to organise their own counter protests as it will not help. We have heard that there may be some young men coming from neighbouring towns and we do not welcome them. We have got good community cohesion here in Rochdale and hopefully it will pass off peacefully. The EDL have a democratic right and we respect that as long as it does not cause problems for the rest of the community."
More than 500 EDL members were expected to meet in the town before holding a demonstration outside the town hall and war memorial from about 1.30pm.
Seventy-four people were arrested and seven injured in violent clashes between the EDL and UAF during a protest in Bolton last March while 10 people were injured and 44 arrested during an EDL protest in Manchester city centre in October 2009.
But Leon Britain, north west organiser for the EDL, said the Rochdale protest would be peaceful. He said: "We are coming to Rochdale to highlight the paedophile grooming in the town and have been invited by our Rochdale division. We are not out to cause tension and do not go out intent on causing trouble. If you look at our previous demonstrations in Bolton and Manchester where there has been fighting it has only been because of the police force being against us and from radical Islamists attacking us."
Chief Supt John O' Hare, the man in charge of Rochdale police, was leading the security operation. He said: "This event will be policed in a professional and sensitive manner but I must make it clear that anyone who is coming with the sole intention of intimidating communities or inciting violence and racism can expect a swift and robust police response. GMP has been working extremely closely with the council, all faith groups in the town and other partners to inform residents and address any concerns they have. Our police operation does not finish once the demonstrators leave town. There will be an extensive policing operation into the night and in the days afterwards."
Town centre pubs were expected to remain open as usual and Roger Ellis, chief executive of Rochdale council, said shops would trade as normal while the protest took place. He said: "Public safety is our priority and police will be joined by officers from various council services to provide a substantial and visible reassuring presence throughout the day, during the event and afterwards. We respect everyone's democratic right to undertake a peaceful demonstration but be assured that we will support the police in dealing swiftly with any criminal or public order offences."
MP Simon Danczuk said: "I understand that many people are angry at the cuts, frustrated that they're working harder for less and looking for scapegoats. But Rochdale should not be bullied by the English Defence League who are coming to our town to sow division, fear and hatred."
Manchester Evening News
Thanks to NewsHound for the heads-up