LONDON (AP) - A wave of violence and looting raged across London and spread to three other major British cities Tuesday, as authorities struggled to contain the country's worst unrest since race riots set the capital ablaze in the 1980s.
In London, groups of young people rampaged for a third straight night, setting buildings, vehicles and garbage dumps alight, looting stores and pelting police officers with bottles and fireworks. The spreading disorder was an unwelcome warning of the possibility of violence during London's 2012 Summer Olympics, less than a year away.
Police called in hundreds of reinforcements -- and made a rare decision to deploy armored vehicles in some of the worst-hit districts -- but still struggled to keep pace with the chaos unfolding at flashpoints across London, in the central city of Birmingham, the western city of Bristol and the northwestern city of Liverpool.
"The violence we have seen is simply inexcusable. Ordinary people have had their lives turned upside down by this mindless thuggery," police commander Christine Jones said.
The riots appeared to have little unifying cause -- though some involved claimed to oppose sharp government spending cuts, which will slash welfare payments and cut tens of thousands of public sector jobs through 2015.
But many appeared attracted simply by the opportunity for violence. "Come join the fun!" shouted one youth in the east London suburb of Hackney, where shops were attacked and cars torched.
The crisis will be a major test of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government, which includes Liberal Democrats who had long suspected its program of harsh budget restraints could provoke popular dissent. Cameron cut short his summer vacation in Italy, rushing home for a crisis meeting Tuesday.
Cameron was expected to toughen the police response. Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May refused to outline what that might entail, but seemed to rule out more drastic measures.
"The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon," she told Sky News. "The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities."
Rioters were left virtually unchallenged in several neighborhoods and able to plunder from stores at will or attempt to invade homes. Restaurants and stores fearful of looting closed early across London.
Simon Dance, a 27-year-old marketing manager who lives in Camden in north London, called the riots outside his apartment last night "very frightening."
"We locked all the doors, and my wife even packed a bag to flee. We had Twitter rolling until midnight just to keep up with the news. We were too afraid to even look out the window," he said Tuesday morning as he took pictures of a smashed Evans Cycles store and a looted Sainsbury's convenience store.
Disorder flared throughout the night, from gritty suburbs along the capital's fringes to central London's posh Notting Hill neighborhood. London Ambulance Service treated 16 patients, of whom 15 were hospitalized. Police said 334 people had been arrested and 69 people charged with offenses.
Three people were arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder of a police officer left hospitalized after being struck by a car in north London early Tuesday.
After dawn, the unrest appeared to calm, either quelled by police or after rioters drifted away.
Violence first broke out late Saturday in the low-income, multiethnic district of Tottenham in north London, where outraged protesters demonstrated against the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four who was gunned down in disputed circumstances Thursday.
A brief inquest hearing into Duggan's death will take Tuesday, though it will likely be several months before a full hearing is convened.
Duggan's death stirred old animosities and racial tensions similar to those that prompted massive riots in the 1980s, despite efforts by London police to build better relations with the city's ethnic communities.
But, as the unrest spread, some pointed to rising social tensions in Britain as the government slashes 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending by 2015 to reduce the huge deficit, swollen after the country spent billions bailing out its foundering banks.
In the south London district of Croydon, police said a 26-year-old man was shot and seriously injured Monday.
A massive blaze ravaged a 100-year-old family run furniture store in Croydon and sent thick plumes of smoke into the air, forcing nearby homes to be evacuated. In the Clapham Junction area of south London, a mob stole masks from a party store to disguise their identities and then set the building on fire.
Sony Corp. said a major blaze had broken out at its distribution center near Enfield, north London, damaging DVDs and other products. So many fires were being fought in the capital that Thames Water warned that some customers could face water pressure drops.
Dozens of people attacked shops in Birmingham's main retail district, and clashed with police in Liverpool and Bristol.
In London's Hackney neighborhood, hundreds of youths left a trail of burning trash and shattered glass. Looters ransacked a convenience store, filling plastic shopping bags with alcohol, cigarettes, candy and toilet paper.
East London's diversity was on display amid the charred hulks of cars and the smell of burning plastic. Some looters were young women with manicured nails and customized BlackBerry smart phones. Others wore dreadlocks and stained shirts or appeared to be homeless.
"This is the uprising of the working class. We're redistributing the wealth," said Bryn Phillips, a 28-year-old self-described anarchist, as young people emerged from the store with chocolate bars and ice cream cones.
Phillips claimed rioters were motivated by distrust of the police, and drew a link between the rage on London's street and insurgent right-wing politics in the United States. "In America you have the tea party, in England you've got this," he said.
Some residents called for police to deploy water cannons to disperse rioters, or call on the military for support. They questioned the strength of leadership within London's police department -- particularly after a wave of resignations prompted by the country's phone-hacking scandal.
Youths used text messages, instant messaging on BlackBerry phones and social media platforms such as Twitter to coordinate attacks and stay ahead of the police.
Police were also monitoring Twitter, and warned that those who posted messages inciting the violence could face arrest.
About 100 young people clashed with police in the Camden and Chalk Farm areas of north London, smashing their way into a bicycle store and mobile phone shop.
In the Peckham district of south London, where a building was set ablaze along with a bus -- which was not carrying passengers -- onlookers said the scene resembled a conflict zone. Cars were torched in nearby Lewisham, and in west London's Ealing suburb the windows of each store along entire streets had been smashed.
"There's been tension for a long time. The kids aren't happy. They hate the police," said Matthew Yeoland, a 43-year-old teacher watching the unrest in Peckham. "It's like a war zone and the police weren't doing anything. There were too many people and not enough police."
Police said Duggan was shot dead last week when police from Operation Trident -- the unit that investigates gun crime in the black community -- stopped a cab he was riding in.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is investigating the shooting, said a "non-police firearm" was recovered at the scene. But the Guardian newspaper reported that a bullet in the officer's radio was police-issue, indicating Duggan may not have fired at the officer.
Duggan's partner, Semone Wilson, insisted Monday that her fiance was not connected to gang violence and urged police to offer more information about his death. But she rejected suggestions that the escalating riots were linked to protests over his death.
"It got out of hand. It's not connected to this anymore. This is out of control," she said.
The past year has seen mass protests against the tripling of student tuition fees and cuts to public sector pensions. In November, December and March, small groups broke away from large marches in London to loot. In the most notorious episode, rioters attacked a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla to a charity concert.
However, the full impact of spending cuts has yet to be felt and the unemployment rate is stable -- although it remains highest among youth, especially in areas like Tottenham, Hackney and Croydon.
Some people caught up in the unrest insisted that joblessness was not to blame. "It's just an excuse for the young ones to come and rob shops," said Brixton resident Marilyn Moseley, 49.
An 11-year-old boy was charged with burglary by police, and at least 100 of those arrested were aged 21 or younger. About 35 police officers had been injured in the violence, police said.
May, the minister responsible for policing, and London Mayor Boris Johnson also cut short summer vacations to deal with the crisis.
Police in Birmingham, 120 miles (195 kilometers) north of London, confirmed that officers had arrested 35 people amid widespread vandalism. In Bristol, police urged residents to avoid the city center after 150 rioters went on the rampage.
Tottenham was the site of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, a series of clashes that led to the fatal stabbing of a police officer and the wounding of nearly 60 others, an event that underscored tensions between London police and the capital's black community.
West Ham, a team in east London, canceled its match Tuesday as a precaution. However, a scheduled international friendly soccer match between England and the Netherlands is going ahead at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.
The International Olympic Committee insisted it had confidence in British authorities. "Security at the Olympic Games is a top priority for the IOC," spokesman Mark Adams said.
Sheila Norman-Culp, Jill Lawless, Meera Selva, Stephen Wilson and Danica Kirka contributed to this report.