New York police have arrested a suspect in a series of fire bombings on the weekend that included an assault on an Islamic centre and were being investigated as possible hate crimes.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the arrest while at a meeting at one of the targets, the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation, between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a large group of city religious leaders.
“We do have a person of interest that we’re speaking to now,” Kelly said.
He described the fire bombings on Sunday as “a heinous type of crime” but said it was “too early to say” whether the motive was religious hatred or a personal grievance.
No one was injured in the five separate incidents, although a private family house was destroyed by flames.
At the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation centre, which includes a Shi’ite mosque, up to 100 people were present when it came under attack. The building escaped with no more than charring on the brickwork above the front door.
The attacks, which also included a Molotov cocktail thrown into a convenience store run by Muslims and similar devices hurled at a house used as a Hindu temple, prompted alarm in New York and particularly in the Muslim community.
“Whether it was a senseless act of violence or a hate crime will be determined down the road. In either case we are not going to tolerate it,” Bloomberg said.
Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders expressed unity in their condemnation of the fire bombings, which come against a backdrop of tensions between some in the Muslim immigrant community and the police.
“We have to stand shoulder to shoulder. We have to protect our country, we have to protect our society, we have to protect our freedom,” the assistant imam at the Islamic centre, Maan Al-Sahlani, said.
Helen Marshall, president of Queens borough, where four of the five attacks took place, said the area was “the most multi-ethnic county in the United States of America”.
“I do not want that destroyed. Is that clear? To just throw bombs when you don’t even know who’s inside? That’s wrong. It’s got to be punished,” she said.
Police say the violence began when a man threw a Starbucks Frappuccino bottle filled with a flammable liquid into a convenience store following an altercation in which he had been ejected from the shop for trying to steal.
Next, similar Molotov cocktails were thrown at the mosque, then at the home of a Christian family, then the Hindu temple house, and finally at a home in nearby Elmont reportedly inhabited by people of Indian descent