New York imam, assistant gunned down near mosque

NEW YORK • A gunman shot and killed a New York imam and his assistant near their mosque in the borough of Queens in a brazen attack carried out in broad daylight on Saturday.

Police said the imam, identified as Mr Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his assistant, 64-year-old Thara Uddin, were shot just before 2pm in the Ozone Park neighbourhood.

The working-class area, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is home to many Muslim families from Bangladesh.

Both men were taken to nearby Jamaica Hospital with gunshot wounds and were pronounced dead there.

The shooting comes amid a climate of growing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, as a series of deadly attacks unfolded in the United States and abroad - some of which have been claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group - and after Republican presidential contender Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The two victims were approached from behind on Liberty Avenue by a suspect, whom witnesses saw fleeing the scene with a gun, according to police. Officers said the gunman is still at large and that the investigation is ongoing.

US media reported that the men, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, were shot after they left the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque following Saturday afternoon prayers.

Police said the motive is unknown and no arrests have been made.

"There is nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith," police told journalists.

But Ms Sarah Sayeed of the New York mayor's office insisted that "the NYPD is looking at all angles of this crime, including the hate crime (angle)".

Mr Kobir Chowdhury, who heads the nearby Masjid Al-Aman mosque in Brooklyn, said: "This is a hate crime, no matter which way you look at it. It's hate against humanity, it's hate against Muslims; these are Islamophobes who are causing these kind of troubles."

During a vigil, the faithful prayed outside the mosque, heads bent and their palms facing the sky.

"Imagine your father gunned down for no reason, and then let that feeling, let that motivate you to come out of your silence," Ms Afaf Nasher, director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations, said at a tense press conference in front of the mosque.

Meanwhile, in a separate incident in Georgia state, police are looking for an assailant who fatally shot a police officer.

Patrol officer Tim Smith, 31, was killed while responding to a call about a suspicious person near an intersection in southern Georgia, police said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'New York imam, assistant gunned down near mosque'. Print Edition | Subscribe