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A member of Italy's civic movement Justice and Freedom protests against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Thousands of far-right activists from the English Defence League descended on Luton yesterday for the biggest demonstration in the organisation's 20-month history.

Coachloads of supporters from the group's UK-wide "divisions" arrived from 10am and were joined by far right and Islamophobic groups from across Europe.

The EDL and police had predicted a turnout of between 5,000 and 7,000, but as the marchers arrived in St George's Square in the town centre just after 1pm, it appeared that no more than 3,000 had turned out. Despite the smaller numbers there were minor scuffles at the train station as anti-racist protesters tried to prevent EDL supporters getting off trains.

More than 2,000 police officers from forces across the south of England escorted the EDL march from the station into the centre of Luton. Some fireworks and bottles were thrown, shops and businesses in the town were closed and petrol stations had been boarded up in what one resident compared to a "war zone".

Two small counter-demonstrations, consisting of a couple of hundred people each, were held in separate areas of the town.

EDL leader Stephen Lennon, told the crowd they were part of a "tidal wave of patriotism" sweeping the UK. He launched a broad attack on Islam and the UK's Muslim communities and said mainstream politicians were failing the working class.

Richard Franklin, vicar of the local parish, said the EDL was not welcome in Luton: "These people are from outside of Luton and this community and are coming into a town which is normally very positive about links between different faiths and cultures. They are disrupting the town - people have not been able to carry on their normal lives, most shops in the centre were closed at enormous financial cost and obviously it is threatening."

There had been fears that Islam4UK, a small militant Muslim group, would stage a counter-protest but by mid-afternoon, that had failed to materialise.About 200 Muslim residents staged a peaceful counter-demonstration in the Bury Park area.

Faisal Khan, 21, who works in a local restaurant, said: "It feels really good to be marching altogether as one community. We are all here to show that Islam is a religion of peace and everyone is welcome to join us."