Swathes of London were burning tonight as the most devastating night of rioting so far raged across the capital for a third day.
The escalating crisis forced UK Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short his holiday amid fears the chaos was spreading beyond London.
UK Home Secretary Theresa May condemned “sheer criminality” as police and emergency services were overwhelmed by a third consecutive night of looting and violence.
Bloody scenes resembling war zones broke out across east and south London after thousands of yobs took to the streets to loot, rob, set fire to property and attack police.
As the violence spread to Birmingham, Mr Cameron flew back to Britain to chair the Government’s emergency committee Cobra and meet police chiefs.
Metropolitan Police Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin issued a direct appeal to families to help police tackle the “gratuitous” violence and appealed directly to families.
He said: “I do urge now that parents start contacting their children and asking where their children are.
“There are far too many spectators who are getting in the way of the police operation to tackle criminal thuggery and burglary.
“I’m imploring that people within those communities actually start clearing the streets to enable my police officers to deal with the criminality that’s occurring in front of them.”
The districts of Croydon, Hackney and Peckham saw the fiercest of tonight’s disturbances with hundreds of shops smashed up and set alight.
Police had already made 215 arrests over the previous two days since the first eruption of violence in Tottenham.
Ministers from across the political divide, along with community leaders and police officers, were united in condemning the rioters.
Mrs May said: “I think this is about sheer criminality. That is what we have seen on the streets. The violence we’ve seen, the looting we’ve seen, the thuggery we’ve seen – this is sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it.
“That’s why I say that these people will be brought to justice, they will be made to face the consequences of their actions and I call on all members of local communities to work with the police constructively to help the police to bring these criminals to justice.”
Scenes echoed those in other areas of the capital over the past two nights, with skirmishes between gangs of youths and police, reportedly prompted by a stop and search incident earlier today.
In Hackney, rioters, many wearing hoods and masks, were confronted by police lines spanning the streets, occasionally moving forward to push the groups back.
As the clashes erupted an officer could be seen lying on the ground after being struck on his shield by a missile.
Other officers came under fire from objects including chairs and pieces of wood.
At one point several people broke into the back of a stationary lorry, pulling its contents out on to the road, with some hurling it at police and others using it to smash windows of a bus.
South of the river in Peckham, teams of riot officers were seen charging at fleeing troublemakers after a major fire was started at a shop adjoining a Greggs bakery.
A nearby bus was also set on fire while TV footage showed a trail of bins and an abandoned vehicle ablaze in Lewisham.
A string of buildings in Croydon, south London, were set on fire. Vast plumes of smoke could be seen rising over the area for miles.
The violence spread to leafy suburbs including East Dulwich and Clapham where looters preyed on shops and caused widespread disruption.
Eyewitness Alan McCabe, a landlord from Croydon, said: “I have never seen such a disregard for human life. I hope they rot in hell. The grief they have caused people, the fear they have put in people’s hearts, decent people who have done nothing to anyone.”
The arrest count was soaring after a total of 153 arrests were made overnight and early this morning after boroughs in north, south and east London fell victim to the first round of copycat rampages following trouble in Tottenham on Saturday.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said there were a third more officers on the ground than there were last night, which was three times more than the previous night.
He said the force was getting police officers to Hackney “in numbers” to respond to violence in the area.
Opportunist rioters over the past two nights are believed to be aged from their mid-teens upwards, he added.
Mr Kavanagh also apologised to the family of shooting victim Mark Duggan - whose death sparked the original violence – for not managing their “needs” better as he warned that rioters “will not be tolerated”.
He added: “Let me make it clear that people who are using current events as an excuse or cover to break the law, steal, attack police officers and cause fear to Londoners will not be tolerated by the vast majority of Londoners and us.
“Our investigation, which is massive in scope, is continuing. We are liaising with businesses and communities across London, including at a borough level, to keep people up to date with what we are doing.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who returned from holiday this morning, condemned the violence earlier as “completely unacceptable” after walking down part of Tottenham High Road and speaking with business owners.
London mayor Boris Johnson also interrupted his family holiday in North America to return to the capital to deal with the situation.
Consecutive days of violence came after a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday, which followed the fatal shooting of Mr Duggan, 29, on Thursday.
Last night’s looting across London was carried out by “small and mobile” groups, Scotland Yard said.
Kit Malthouse, London’s deputy mayor for policing, denied that the resignations last month of Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and assistant commissioner John Yates in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal had contributed to gaps in decision-making at the top of the force.
Scotland Yard said at least nine officers were injured in last night’s violence, including three who were taken to hospital after being hit by a fast-moving vehicle at 12.45am. The officers had been in the process of making arrests in Chingford Mount, Waltham Forest, after a shop was looted by youths.
Last night saw violence and looting in Brixton, Enfield Town and Walthamstow Central.
An inquest into Mr Duggan’s death is due to open tomorrow at High Barnet Coroner’s Court, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said.
The watchdog said it was awaiting “further forensic analysis” to gain a comprehensive account of the shots which led to his death.
The Guardian quoted a source as saying that initial tests suggested a bullet found lodged in a police radio after Mr Duggan’s death was police issue.
The IPCC will publish details of ballistic tests in the next 24 hours.