A method for modelling the growth of multiple cracks in linear elastic media is presented. Both homogeneous and inhomogeneous materials are considered. The method uses the extended finite element method for arbitrary discontinuities and does not require remeshing as the cracks grow; the method also treats the junction of cracks. The crack geometries are arbitrary with respect to the mesh and are described by vector level sets. The overall response of the structure is obtained until complete failure. A stability analysis of competitive cracks tips is performed. The method is applied to bodies in plane strain or plane stress and to unit cells with 2–10 growing cracks (although the method does not limit the number of cracks). It is shown to be efficient and accurate for crack coalescence and percolation problems. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.