A protest by the English Defence League and a counter-demonstration passed off largely peacefully in Blackburn today after a huge police operation.

Lancashire Police prepared for its biggest ever policing operation around the protests, taking place either end of Northgate separated by steel barriers.

Numbers were limited to 3,000 for each protest.

However, police estimate 2,000 supporters of the EDL gathered with around 500 people at the Blackburn with Darwen United Against Racism counter-protest.

12 arrests were made for offences such as breach of peace, police assault, assault, drunk and disorderly, threatening behaviour, affray and obstruction.

From early this morning, the streets of Blackburn were lined with police.

EDL protesters arrived on coaches in the Mincing Lane and Vue Cinema area from 10.30am.

Four pubs inside the fenced-off area were opened for them – the Zy Bar in Market Street Lane, Bar Ibiza in Mincing Lane, and the Sun and the Arena, both in Astley Gate.

Just after 12.30pm, the rising volume reaching the William Gladstone statue signalled the imminent arrival of the English Defence League, on their short march to the demonstration site outside King George’s Hall.

Police, brought the groups forward in waves, with EDL ‘marshals’ wearing bibs leading the way.

As they spread out into the boxed-off area, the demonstrators - largely men but including some women and teenagers - congregated around the stage.

Shortly afterwards the EDL’s leader, who uses the name Tommy Robinson, addressed the crowd, which was singing songs like a raucous football crowd.

He was flanked by EDL members holding placards with photographs of local people who have died.

Speakers took to the stage to denounce Jack Straw, hit-and-run drivers, and 'militant Islam'.

The first brawl broke out as Mr Robinson singled out one member of the crowd for abuse, claiming threats had been made online.

As more than 12 men fought, someone said over the tannoy: “We are here to fight militant Islam, not each other.”

The second brawl lasted almost 10 minutes and was sparked by a bottle being thrown towards the stage.

Local Blackburn EDL leader, who only gave his name as 'Aussie Dave' said: "I was happy with the turn-out but disgusted with the small number that were causing trouble.

"The police and stewards have done really well but I am just upset about the trouble that there's been. It was a minority who wanted trouble."

Kevin Carroll, EDL joint national leader, came from Luton to take part. He said hundreds of people had travelled long distances to the protest.

He said: "We had a few little skirmishes but it was just a few people trying to cause trouble.

"It has been a great show today and people who deliberately set out to cause trouble shouldn't be allowed to ruin it.”

The EDL protest finished at 1.45pm, overlapping the counter-demonstration in Sudell Cross which began at 1pm and ended at 3pm.

Blackburn and Darwen United Against Racism's protest included local trade unionists and councillors and members of Lancashire Council of Mosques, Blackburn College Students’ Union, Unite Against Fascism and the Muslim Defence League.

Speeches were given where the EDL was compared to Hitler, Mussolini and Oswald Mosley.

Coun Kate Hollern, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council leader, urged listeners to protest peacefully and not let ‘the EDL split Blackburn’.

Some Asian protesters were wearing T-shirts declaring: ‘Born here. Bred here. Proud to be here’.

At 1.30pm some protesters, mostly young male, tried to charge the barriers keeping them from the area close to the EDL protest.

As stewards battled to calm the atmosphere, firecrackers were thrown on the floor. However, police were not sufficiently worried to step in and stewards brought it under control.

Organisers on the stage appealed for calm, reminding protesters that violence would achieve nothing.

With the time approaching 2pm hundreds of protesters decided they wanted to leave the area, with the exit manned by police and stewards.

But with EDL members having finished their demo just 15 minutes earlier, counter-protesters were kept in the area, infuriating many. More firecrackers were thrown and the narrow path to the exit became a bottle-neck.

Afterwards, Maurice Ffelan, spokesman for Blackburn and Darwen United Against Racism said he was pleased with the protest.

“I think it has gone well,” he said. “I think despite a bit of disorder, we put on a united front. We are all opposed to the EDL and we demonstrated that without any violence.”

After the demonstrations ended, a heavy police presence remained, in particular at the entrance to Whalley Range in Barbara Castle Way.

Pubs re-opened at 4pm, ahead of the Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers match which was being screene on television.

A heavy police presence remains in town this evening in case there are any outbreaks of trouble and the police helicopter is still flying overhead.

Bob Eastwood, divisional commander for eastern division at Lancashire Police, said: "Although there were minor scuffles amongst the EDL demonstrators, there was no significant disorder.

"The events have passed mostly without incident and I would like to thank the local community for their help and tolerance during the events and the lead up to them.

"All our officers and staff should also be commended for their efforts, as well as those who have worked alongside us from other organisations, in particular Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, community volunteers, marshals and mediators.

"The aim of the policing operation was to allow for peaceful protests which we have demonstrated is possible through careful planning and successful communication at all levels."

The Lancashire Telegraph provided live updates from the protests.

Click on the link below for live videos and photo galleries.

REPORTING TEAM: Paul Cockerton, Ian Singleton, David Watkinson, Tom Moseley, Chris Hopper, Catherine Pye, Jon Livesey and Sam Chadderton.