Three people have been arrested on suspicion of violent disorder following clashes outside a Merseyside hotel providing refuge for asylum seekers.
A police van was set on fire after a rally against refugees and a counter-protest by pro-migrant groups took place near the Suites Hotel, Knowsley.
Police said missiles were thrown at officers but there were no injuries.
Protesters and counter protesters gathered at the hotel in the Ribblers Lane area at 18:30 GMT, they added.
The Suites had been previously named as accommodation where asylum seekers are being housed.
A couple of hours into the action, the “initially peaceful” protest grew violent, Merseyside Police said, leading to additional officers being called to the area.
Knowsley MP Sir George Howarth called for calm, saying: “I have referred an alleged incident posted on social media, which has triggered a demonstration outside the Suites Hotel, to Merseyside Police and Knowsley Council.
“Until the police have investigated the matter, it is too soon to jump to conclusions, and the effort on the part of some to inflame the situation is emphatically wrong.”
Sir George added: “Those demonstrating against refugees at this protest tonight do not represent this community.”
The BBC is yet to establish the nature of the protest.
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, told the BBC she had been part of a counter-protest in solidarity with migrants.
She said she was “deeply shocked and shaken” to see “hundreds” of protesters, who she described as “far-right”, angry at migrants in the hotel.
The protesters had broken through police lines to surround the hotel at around 20:15 GMT, Ms Moseley added, describing the scene as “like a war zone”.
She said: “The far-right people were very organised and very violent.
“All you could hear was fighting in every direction. Fireworks going off, banging, locks flying, smashing glass, and you could hear people shouting.
“The police van went right up in flames and exploded, then [the protesters] broke through again and started fighting with the police.”
She added that counter protesters had been “barricaded in a car park”.
“We were stuck there for ages, whilst the police were fighting in different areas.
“I was really frightened for us, I was really frightened for the people in the hotel. These are people who have come from war zones. I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be for them.”
The three people who were arrested have been taken to police stations for questioning.
A man who was staying at the hotel when the protests broke out said people were “crying and suffering” during the violence.
The man from East Africa, who had been accommodated at Suites Hotel for the past seven months and did not want to be named, told PA news: “It was burning and everybody in the world was praying.
“We come from different lifestyles so it doesn’t surprise me to see a vehicle burning.”
He added that despite Friday night’s events, “people have been welcoming here”.
Ahmed, who did not want to give his second name, said he had been staying at the hotel for a month after travelling from Egypt, where he was a teacher.
The 34-year-old said others staying in the hotel included doctors and engineers, adding: “I was afraid. We came to the UK for safety.”
Knowsley Council said it had been given less than 48 hours’ notice in January 2022 of the Home Office’s intention to temporarily accommodate asylum seekers at the hotel.
It is understood the government appointed private company Serco to manage the hotel site and provide support to asylum seekers there.
Knowsley Council said it was “not involved in that contract” and was not being paid to accommodate asylum seekers, but said it was committed to supporting people fleeing persecution.
The government has been accommodating asylum seekers in Knowsley since 2016, the council said.
The BBC has contacted the Home Office for a response.
Chief Constable of Merseyside Police Serena Kennedy said there would be “an increased police presence” over the weekend.
She tweeted: “We will be continuing in our identification of those mindless individuals who were responsible for the offences this evening.”
Assistant Chief Constable Paul White said the incident was “completely unacceptable” and put “those present, our officers and the wider community in danger”.
“For officers and police vehicles to be damaged in the course of their duty protecting the public is disgraceful,” he said.
At the scene
By Nick Garnett, North of England reporter
The husk of a police van lies burnt to the metal outside the gates of the Suites Hotel.
From a window, a man staying at the hotel peers down at the debris below. Bottles, paving stones, rocks and sticks litter the roads, the aftermath of the violence.
Police allow me through to see what happened but only when they’ve taken three young men they’ve just arrested into the back of a waiting police van which then drives off.
On the road, a piece of paper flutters by. “This is our city” it says, hinting at the issues which may be involved in this protest.
Police are continuing to review evidence of the incident, and are asking the public to contact them directly with any information, rather than posting it on social media.
A number of road closures have been in place on the East Lancs Road and police urged motorists to avoid the area.
Merseyside’s police commissioner Emily Spurrell, who oversees Merseyside Police and is appointed through a public vote, said called the incident “deeply shocking” and added “there is absolutely no excuses for this”.
And shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called the behaviour of protesters “shameful and appalling”.
Mark Davies, of the Refugee Council, said those who had participated had brought “shame on this country’s long and proud record” of helping those in need.
“These are appalling scenes and our thoughts are with those staying at the hotel. This must be terrifying for them.”
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