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More Than 100 Cars Burned in Mass Arson Attack in Sweden

GOTEBORG, Sweden — Swedish authorities on Wednesday were investigating the burning of more than 100 vehicles on the nation’s west coast, in what they said was a coordinated arson attack by groups of young men.

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Christina Anderson
, New York Times

GOTEBORG, Sweden — Swedish authorities on Wednesday were investigating the burning of more than 100 vehicles on the nation’s west coast, in what they said was a coordinated arson attack by groups of young men.

The attack began shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, when several cars were reported to be on fire in the main square of Vastra Frolunda, a suburb of Goteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city.

By the time those blazes were over, “33 cars had been lit on fire and about 50 cars had been damaged,” Thomas Fuxborg, a spokesman for the Swedish Police, said in a phone interview.

A few minutes after the fires broke out in Vastra Frolunda, there were reports of cars on fire in Hjallbo, a district in northeast Goteborg. Fires were also reported in Kronogarden, a district of Trollhattan, about 45 miles north of Goteborg, police said.

“We think these attacks were coordinated using social media,” Fuxborg said, adding that police were investigating the crimes as acts of arson, vandalism, rioting and incitement to violence.

“Society is going to react very harshly against this,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told Radio Sweden, adding: “We have raised the punishment for vandalism. We will also propose this fall to address the attacks on the police that often occur in the wake of this kind of activity.”

The car fires are likely to become a political issue as Swedish elections loom. Generally, health and medical care, schools and education, integration and immigration, the environment, and care for the elderly top the priorities for most Swedes. But a recent poll showed that 10 percent of the population lists law and order as the most important issue in the vote on Sept. 9, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported Saturday.

Lofven, a Social Democrat, is running for re-election, and he spent Tuesday afternoon visiting the affected area in Vastra Frolunda.

On Tuesday, the police arrested a 16-year-old boy and a 21-year-old man in connection with the fires there. A third man who had fled to Turkey, was picked up at an airport there late Tuesday, said Christer Fuxborg, a police spokesman.

Setting fire to vehicles in Scandinavia is not uncommon, but the phenomenon has stymied police and criminologists. “On average, there are four incidents a day in Sweden, and August is the month where we tend to have the most burning cars,” said Manne Gerell, a criminologist affiliated with Malmo University.

In the summer of 2016, Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, experienced more than 70 car fires within a few weeks. Police used drones to search for the culprits. On Monday, when the fires began in Vastra Frolunda, Krista Koppel, 74, was in her apartment nearby. She said that she had heard the sound of firecrackers and people shouting outside and had gone to her balcony on the eighth floor, where she has a view of the parking lot.

“I saw about six to eight male persons totally covered in black,” she said. “They were smashing the rear windows in the cars. Then they had some Molotov cocktails and they threw them into the cars — about 20 cars in total.” She added that her car had also been damaged. When they ran out of Molotov cocktails, the perpetrators went away, she said.

Koppel, who has been living in her neighborhood for 40 years, said she had always felt safe — until Monday.

“I was very upset, and I cried, and I thought why was this happening? It was so terrible,” she said. “Of course, nobody dared to go outside and stop them. There were so many of them and you don’t know if they have guns.”

In Hjallbo, a group of eight to 10 boys and young men set fire to some 15 cars at six addresses, Thomas Fuxborg, the police spokesman, said.

In Kronogarden, which has a history of “confrontations between police and youth gangs,” he said, seven cars were damaged “and about 40 youths threw stones at police officers and rescue workers and blocked the entrance to the area with burning car tires.”

Another car was set on fire in Alafors, a rural community between Goteborg and Trollhattan, and a moped burned in Lysekil, a coastal community north of Goteborg, he added.

In a region that frequently tops quality-of-life indexes, such social unrest has left police officers scratching their heads as they struggle to find the root cause of the fires. Residents cite disparate theories to explain the attacks, including blaming them on Russians trying to foment unrest before the election.

Gerell, the criminologist, said that Monday’s car fires were similar to the Malmo blazes, but that they did not seem to follow the usual pattern of social unrest. “Usually, when there’s lots of burning cars, you also have rioting occurring simultaneously,” he said. “That was not the case in Malmo in 2016, nor does it appear to be the case in Goteborg.”

The attacks in Goteborg were widely recorded and spread on the internet, he noted, and instead of a crowd of angry youths, they appeared to be more systematic. “It looks kind of calm and organized,” he said.

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