Fifteen people have been arrested after “violent scenes” outside a hotel where asylum seekers were staying in Merseyside.
A demonstration descended into chaos outside the Suites Hotel in Ribbers Lane, Prescot, on Friday evening as a police van was set on fire and missiles, including lit fireworks, were thrown at officers.
The police van was also struck with hammers, police say.
Merseyside Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said officers had been made aware of rumours on social media prior to the protest about about an alleged incident earlier in the week “when a man made inappropriate advances towards a teenage girl”.
She said a man in his 20s had been arrested “in another part of the country”, but subsequently released following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The chief constable stressed the investigation was ongoing and warned of the harm speculation and misinformation could do both to the outcome of the inquiry and people’s behaviour.
She said there was “no excuse” for Friday’s violence and said a dispersal order was in force for the area, aimed at preventing further trouble.
Police said they had been facilitating a peaceful protest and counter demonstration, when others turned up who “were only interested in causing trouble through violence and intimidation, without any thought, or care, for other members of the public, or our officers”.
A total of 13 men and two women, between the ages of 13 and 54, were arrested on suspicion of violent disorder, said police.
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said she was among up to 120 people from pro-migrant groups who went to the scene in reaction to the protest to show support for the asylum seekers.
Speaking to Sky News, the 52-year-old said: “I was very shocked at how violent it got… to see these kinds of scenes in Liverpool, it broke my heart.”
She added: “It was like a warzone.”
Ch Con Kennedy said condemned those who used the planned protest “to carry out violent and despicable behaviour”.
She said: “They turned up armed with hammers and fireworks to cause as much trouble as they could and their actions could have resulted in members of the public and police officers being seriously injured, or worse.
“Indeed, one of my officers was injured in the line of duty, as were a number of members of the public, and it is only through luck that no-one was more seriously injured or worse.”
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She added: “We understand that prior to this happening last night there were rumours, and misinformation, being circulated on social media following an incident earlier in the week.
“Detectives are investigating reports of an incident which occurred in Kirkby on Monday, 6 February, when a man made inappropriate advances toward a teenage girl.”
‘Speculation can damage the outcome of investigations’
Confirming a man had been arrested but subsequently released with no further action on CPS advice, Ch Con Kennedy said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that this is very much an ongoing investigation, and we would urge anyone who witnessed this incident, or who has any information, which could help us bring the offender to justice, to come forward.
“Social media speculation, misinformation and rumour can actually damage the outcome of investigations and cause unnecessary fear and consequent behaviour, so I would continue to ask people to be mindful of the damage that such actions can cause.
“We understand the concern that an incident can cause but I can assure you that the investigation is ongoing and we are doing everything we can to bring the offender to justice.”