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Sweden's happy, generous image challenged by four-day riot

Roger Vikstr / EPA

People gather at a protest against police violence and vandalism in Husby, northern Stockholm, Sweden, on May 22.

STOCKHOLM -- Hundreds of youths have torched cars and attacked police in four nights of riots in immigrant suburbs of Sweden's capital, shocking a country that dodged the worst of the financial crisis but failed to solve youth unemployment and resentment among asylum seekers.

Violence spread from the north to the south of the city on Wednesday as groups of youths pushed through Stockholm's suburbs casting stones, breaking windows and setting cars alight. Police in the southern Swedish city of Malmo said two cars had been set ablaze.

Local media said a police station office was set on fire in the southern suburb of Rågsved, where several people were also detained. No one was hurt and the fire was quickly put out.

The attackers have awaited nightfall before setting out, defying a call for calm from the country's prime minister and damaging stores, schools, a police station and an arts and crafts center in the four days of violence.

"I think there is a feeling that we need to be in more places tonight," said Towe Hagg, spokeswoman for Stockholm police. One police officer was injured in the latest attacks and five people were arrested for attempted arson.

Selcuk Ceken, who works at a local youth activity center in Hagsatra, said between 40 and 50 youths threw stones at police and smashed windows, then ran off in different directions. He noted the people were in their 20s and seemed well organized.

"It's difficult to say why they're doing this," he said. "Maybe it's anger at the law and order forces, maybe it's anger at their own personal situation, such as unemployment or having nowhere to live."

The riots appear to have been sparked by the police killing of a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby this month, which prompted accusations of police brutality. The riots then spread from Husby to other poor Stockholm suburbs.

Youths smashed shop windows and set cars ablaze in a Stockholm suburb, marking the third straight night of rioting in Sweden. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

"We see a society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger," said Rami Al-khamisi, co-founder of Megafonen, a group that works for social change in the suburbs.

"And the people out here are being hit the hardest ... We have institutional racism."

The riots were less severe than those of the past two summers in Britain and France but provided a reminder that even in places less ravaged by the financial crisis than Greece or Spain, state belt-tightening is toughest on the poor, especially immigrants.

"The reason is very simple. Unemployment, the housing situation, disrespect from police," said Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of the local Norra Sidan newspaper, which covers Husby. "It just takes something to start a riot, and that was the shooting."

Djalaie said youths were often stopped by police in the streets for unnecessary identity checks. During the riots, he said some police called local youths "apes."

The television pictures of blazing cars come as a jolt to a country proud of its reputation for social justice as well as its hospitality toward refugees from war and repression.

"I understand why many people who live in these suburbs and in Husby are worried, upset, angry and concerned," said Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. "Social exclusion is a very serious cause of many problems, we understand that."

After decades of practicing the "Swedish model" of generous welfare benefits, Stockholm has been reducing the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy.

While average living standards are still among the highest in Europe, successive governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected immigrant communities worst.

Some 15 percent of the population are foreign-born, and unemployment among these stands at 16 percent, compared with 6 percent for native Swedes, according to OECD data.

Youth unemployment in Husby, at 6 percent, is twice the overall average across the capital.

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