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What’s behind the car burnings in western Sweden?

Timo Lyyra from Gothenburg found out about the car fires in Frölunda in a phone call from his ten-year-old son. The boy was watching the fire from the windows of his mothers apartment, where he was staying at the time. "When it happens right in front of your bedroom, when it comes home to you, you get really scared," Lyyra told The Local.

According to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), the number of arson attacks against private cars has nearly doubled every ten years since 1998. In that year, there were 380 such cases recorded in Sweden, which rose to 843 in 2007 and to 1,457 in 2017.

The same statistics show that the highest occurrence of the crime is in Stockholm Country followed by Västra Götaland and Skåne, which both have significantly higher rates of car arson than the rest of the country. Sweden's National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) also publishes statistics about vandalism and property damage crimes, but does not make a distinction between arson attacks in general and those directed at cars.

The Local spoke to experts about the causes of the latest unrest. Around 80 cars were set alight across Gothenburg and other parts of West Sweden on Monday night, as well as in Malmö, Stockholm, and some other towns. This was followed by further car burnings on a smaller scale the following evening. It wasn't clear if there was a link between all the incidents, but Gothenburg police said they believed at least some of the fires had been coordinated via social media.

Expressen on Thursday shared a video it reportedly received an hour before the fires, in which a masked man blamed Swedish police, politicians, and society, for the incident.

"Treat us like animals and we will behave like animals", he said.

Gothenburg resident Lyyra told The Local he wasnt surprised the car fires took place in Frölunda. He noted that Gothenburg is one of Europe's most segregated cities, and Frölunda a particularly deprived area. It is one of the 23 areas labelled by police as "especially vulnerable", meaning that high crime rates affect the local community and that it's characterized by a low socioeconomic status.

"If you exclude many people from the society and impoverish them, they are not going to be happy about it. They are stripped of opportunities and separated geographically. They are supposed to assimilate but they dont have a chance!" Lyyra said.

Torbjörn Forkby, a professor at the Department of Social Work at Småland's Linnaeus University, pointed to growing disparities between social groups and city districts as a possible explanation.

"Too great share of young people living in separated areas feel that society belongs to someone else," he said.

The consequences can include acts of disturbance, protests, and even destruction of property, Forkby explained. He cited the example of the widespread riots in the United Kingdom in 2011, which spread quickly after protests over the death of a man shot by police in London.

On Tuesday evening, Gothenburg police said they suspected a link between the car fires and the large number of arrests of criminal gang members in the city during the summer.

Forkby says he had no information about such a link, but agreed it could have triggered such a reaction. "It looks like they were trying to make some kind of a statement," Forkby said.

But Anders Sundell, a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg argues that the arson attacks should not be interpreted as an act of protest.

"This act is utterly pointless and meaningless destruction, and that is not how we communicate in a democracy," he emphasized. According to the political scientist, the most appropriate response is for police to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice, and for politicians to think about how such acts can be prevented.

Nattens händelser med maskerade män som brände ett stort antal bilar med 1 månad kvar till valet var välorganiserat. Skulle inte förvåna mig om extremhögern var inblandade på något sätt.

— Daniel Riazat (@DanielRiazat) August 14, 2018

Speculation was rife in social media. A Swedish parliament member from the Left Party, Daniel Riazat, tweeted on Monday that he would not be surprised if "far-right extremists" were involved in the arson attacks, which came one month before the election.

But the prosecutor responsible for the case has rejected speculation over political motives. "There is nothing in our investigation that suggests political motives," prosecutor Mats Ihlbom said on Wednesday, Aftonbladet reported. He did not reveal further information about the suspects's motive but said that one working hypothesis was that the car fires were a reaction to police work in the area.

Political scientist Sundell was also sceptical about the fires being linked to any political campaign, but did say that Monday night's events may affect political discussions ahead of September's general election.

Just as the widespread forest fires over summer have brought climate issues to the top of the political agenda, the arson attacks might lead to a renewed focus on questions of law and order. "There was a party leaders debate yesterday, and the first issue discussed was this one," Sundell noted.

So far, three men have been held in custody over the attacks, police reported on Tuesday. One man in his 20s travelled to Turkey but was stopped at the border, and two other males from Frölunda (16 and 21) also remained in custody on suspicion of aggravated arson. Police have said they expect more suspects to be brought into custody in connection with the attacks.

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