SYDNEY — Police didn't arrive in force until about 15 minutes after biker gangs started brawling inside Australia's busiest airport. More than a day later, police had not managed to view surveillance camera footage of the violence, which left a man bleeding to death in front of horrified travelers.
But Australian authorities have defended their response, saying the fight erupted without warning among at least 15 heavily tattooed men who rampaged from the ground floor upstairs to the departures hall.
"The police can't be everywhere all the time," Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty told a news conference Monday.
The airport is one of the country's busiest and most monitored gateways. Sunday's fight began after a group from the Hell's Angels and one from the Comancheros gang got off a flight from Melbourne, according to a police document in court.
Witnesses said the bikers picked up large metal barrier poles and swung them at each other.
"I saw one of the men lying on the ground and another man came up with a pole and just started smashing it into his head," Naomi Constantine told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Police said they believed the man who died was 29-year-old Anthony Zervas, the brother of a well-known Sydney biker.
The court document said most of the fighters fled _ some in taxis _ as police arrived in numbers, about 15 minutes after the brawl began.
Keelty admitted the violence took them by surprise but said officers responded quickly to emergency phone calls. Authorities also acknowledged at a court hearing that they had yet to watch security camera footage of the brawl because police were having problems downloading it.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was appalled by the incident and said his government would push states toward a national approach to anti-gang laws.
"This sort of behavior by bikies and others engaged in organized criminal activity is unacceptable in Australia, absolutely unacceptable," Rudd told reporters during a visit to Washington, using the Australian term for bikers. "It shows that we have a problem on our hands when it comes to organized bikie gang violence across the country _ it's repugnant."
New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees said he was "sickened and appalled." His government on Monday more than doubled the size of the anti-gang squad to 125. Rees said he would consider new laws to crack down on biker gangs, with measures such as banning clubhouses and meetings of more than two or three members.
Officials likened the measures to counterterrorism laws.
"If these people want to act like terrorists, we'll deal with them like they're terrorists," state police chief Andrew Scipione said.
Four men appeared in court Monday charged in connection to the brawl, though not with causing the man's death, and were refused bail.
"This is a new low in the activities of these criminal gangs," Rees said. "Where once they kept these things between themselves, this has now overlapped into the public domain."
Biker gangs, including local versions of U.S.-founded clubs like the Hell's Angels and the Bandidos, have existed in Australia since the late 1960s, and turf battles have ebbed and flowed. Gang members are often accused of being involved in drugs, especially amphetamines and cannabis, though gang leaders deny involvement in organized crime and say they cannot control individual actions.
With the exception of a full-blown gun battle in a Sydney parking garage in 1984 between Bandidos and Comancheros members, most violence had been largely out of the public eye.
"Usually bikie groups are very inward looking, they keep to themselves, they don't involve outsiders," Michael Kennedy, a former detective who is now an academic at the University of Western Sydney, told Sydney radio 2UE on Monday. "A percentage of them are involved in illegal activity but most of them are just knockabouts who want to ride their bikes, wear their colors and mind their own business."
But some newer bikers "are more entrepreneurial, more businessmen-type people who want to make money and are more involved with organized crime," he added.
A Hell's Angels club house was firebombed last month. Police said a group called Notorious was suspected in two drive-by shootings on the same night last week.
The trend toward public settling of scores could place bystanders at greater risk, said Arthur Veno, who wrote the 2004 book "The Brotherhoods: Inside the Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs."
"Yesterday was nothing compared with what's on the scene," he said.