Six people, including four brothers, were arrested and charged with drug offences after several raids last week, bringing the total arrests so far to about 200, predominantly Lebanese or Middle Eastern.

The Australian government had constituted a special squad, known as Task Force Gain, last October, to investigate nine murders, five shooting incidents, a string of robberies and other crimes in Sydney's southwestern suburbs, home to much of Australia's Muslim community.

New South Wales Police Minister John Watkins said Task Force Gain had now laid hundreds of charges, "demonstrating tremendous initial success".

The unit's success is seen as a victory for senior oficers, some now out of the force, who had been pushing for a special unit to tackle Middle Eastern crime which they saw as a potential "time-bomb".

Growing concern

"The Lebanese criminals have been a growing concern for more than 10 years and now every unit in state crime command is dealing with some form of major crime committed by someone from the Lebanese community"

Australian official

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday that former police commissioner Peter Ryan had shelved a proposal for such a unit "because of fears it would be seen as racist and politically incorrect".

"The Lebanese criminals have been a growing concern for more than 10 years and now every unit in state crime command is dealing with some form of major crime committed by someone from the Lebanese community," a senior officer told the Herald.

A week ago, a former detective had said gangs of Middle Eastern youths were responsible for many murders, including unprovoked attacks on young Australians for no other reason than their ethnicity.

'Economic' problems

Amjad Mahbub, chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said: "We don't deny that this is a problem, but these youths are mostly Lebanese and not necessarily Muslim, because many are Christian who have been brought up in Australia.

"It is not as if it has been imported from the Middle East because in the Middle East rape, for instance, is a very serious crime subject to very serious penalties.

"But these are problems of victimisation, they are economic problems and problems of joblessness that have to be tackled by the whole Australian community.

"We are not saying it should be condoned. It's a problem that has to be handled by the whole Australian community and these crimes should be dealt with severely by the law so that others will not venture in that direction."