By Johan Sennero and Johan Ahlander
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Hundreds of young people have torched cars and attacked police in three nights of riots in immigrant suburbs of Sweden's capital, shocking a country that has dodged the worst of the financial crisis but failed to defuse youth unemployment and resentment of asylum seekers.
On Tuesday night, a police station in the Jakobsberg area in northwest Stockholm was attacked, two schools were damaged and an arts and crafts centre was set ablaze, despite a call for calm from Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
"We've had around 30 cars set on fire last night, fires that we connect to youth gangs and criminals," Kjell Lindgren, spokesman for Stockholm police, said on Wednesday.
The riots were less severe than those of the past two summers in Britain and France, but provided a similar reminder that, even in places less ravaged by the financial crisis than Greece or Spain, state belt-tightening is toughest on the poor, especially immigrants.
"We see a society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger," said Rami Al-khamisi, co-founder of Megafonen, a group that works for social change in the suburbs.
"And the people out here are being hit the hardest ... We have institutional racism."
The riots appear to have been sparked by the police killing of a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby this month, which prompted accusations of police brutality. The riots then spread from Husby to other poor Stockholm suburbs.
"The reason is very simple. Unemployment, the housing situation, disrespect from police," said Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of the local Norra Sidan newspaper, which covers Husby. "It just takes something to start a riot, and that was the shooting."
Djalaie said youths were often stopped by police in the streets for unnecessary identity checks. During the riots, he said some police called local youths "apes".
The television pictures of blazing cars come as a jolt to a country proud of its reputation for social justice as well as its hospitality towards refugees from war and repression.
"I understand why many people who live in these suburbs and in Husby are worried, upset, angry and concerned," said Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. "Social exclusion is a very serious cause of many problems, we understand that."
After decades of practicing the "Swedish model" of generous welfare benefits, Stockholm has been reducing the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy.
While average living standards are still among the highest in Europe, successive governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected immigrant communities worst.
Some 15 percent of the population are foreign-born, and unemployment among these stands at 16 percent, compared with 6 percent for native Swedes, according to OECD data.
Youth unemployment in Husby, at 6 percent, is twice the overall average across the capital.
The left-leaning tabloid Aftonbladet said the riots represented a "gigantic failure" of government policies, which had underpinned the rise of ghettos in the suburbs.
As unemployment has grown, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party has risen to third in polls ahead of a general election due next year, reflecting many voters' worries that immigrants may be partly to blame.
ASYLUM NUMBERS RISING
While many of the immigrant population are from Nordic neighbors closely tied to Sweden by language or culture, the debate has tended to focus on poor asylum seekers from distant war zones.
Out of a total 103,000 immigrants last year, 43,900 were asylum seekers, almost 50 percent up from 2011. Nearly half of these were refugees from fighting in Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, and will get at least temporary residency.
Among 44 industrialized countries, Sweden ranks fourth in the absolute number of asylum seekers, and second relative to its population, according to U.N. figures.
Policing in Stockholm has already been the focus of controversy this year, with allegations that police were picking out darker-skinned immigrants for identity checks in subway trains.
"The young people say: 'I'm getting chased and harassed by the police anyway. So I might as well do something (to be harassed for)'," said local editor Djalaie.
Ask, the justice minister, acknowledged the problem by promising that police would get closer to the local community.
On the streets of Husby, daily life appeared to be returning to normal on Wednesday, but police planned to put extra night-time patrols on the streets. Some shops reopened, despite broken windows. There was at least one burnt-out car, but many had already been removed.
Alikalay Adan, a youth worker who had tried to mediate between police and rioters, criticized police for "coming out here screaming and with batons drawn", but said some of the local community must share the blame.
"Everyone is like a family out here, and it is sad when a few destroy everything and give the area a bad name."
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard and Mia Shanley; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)