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NYC police investigate possible bias crimes

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NEW YORK (AP) — Police kept watch over a globally prominent Islamic cultural center that was firebombed as they investigated other possibly linked attacks that also could be bias crimes.

Although structural damage to the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation building was minimal, the incident Sunday has left the community emotionally shaken, said its assistant imam, Maan Al-Sahlani.

On Sunday evening, the entrance to the foundation in Queens was struck by two Molotov cocktails, the types of bombs usually made of glass bottles filled with flammable liquid and corked with rags.

A private house that is used as a Hindu house of worship also was hit. A videotape from a surveillance camera shows a car pulling up to the house Sunday night. Someone suddenly appears, lifts his right arm high and hurls a lit object that strikes the house and explodes into flames.

Besides the private house and the Islamic center, the other targets in the suspected arson attacks were a corner store and another house.

No one was injured in any of the incidents and no suspects have been arrested. Police have released a sketch of a suspect in the bombing of the Hindu worship site.

With New York Police Department cruisers parked outside and yellow police tape fluttering, Al-Sahlani met Monday with a dozen other clerics from the city's Muslim community. A news conference was planned for Tuesday.

Near a blackened, charred spot on the concrete overhang of the Islamic foundation's main entrance, the front gates remained wide open to the street on Monday, and anyone could walk in to worship.

"This is America, and we must continue to love one another," Al-Sahlani, standing in flowing ritual robes in the main prayer hall, said with a smile.

On Sunday, about 80 faithful had gathered inside for dinner when a firebomb struck at 8:44 p.m. A second one followed, striking a banner for the center's school over the door. There was no visible damage there.

"We were very surprised," Al-Sahlani said. "This has never happened here before."

The decades-old foundation is among the foremost Muslim institutions in New York, with branches around the world. Named for one of the most influential Shiite scholars, it promotes work in development, human rights and minority rights as a general consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

The sprawling complex has two minarets rising over an expressway that leads to the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Visitors over the years have included Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and various New York mayors and international diplomats, Al-Sahlani said.

Besides a prayer hall, library, kitchen and other facilities, the center has a full, accredited school that resumes Tuesday after holiday break. Some parents were concerned about the attack, the imam said.

In releasing the security videotape of the bombed private home, police said they were looking for a man, 25 to 30 years old, about 5-foot-8 and weighing about 200 pounds. They said he fled the scene in a light-colored, four-door sedan with a sunroof. They were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Other targeted locations were more substantially damaged. Police said at least three firebombs were thrown, though some didn't explode.

The first hit was at 8 p.m., when a bottle was thrown at a counter at a corner convenience store, but the damage wasn't extensive.

Ten minutes later, a possible firebomb smashed through the glass at a nearby home, setting it on fire and badly damaging it.

About half an hour later, the Islamic center was targeted.

And at 10:14 p.m., two bottles were thrown at the house police said was used for Hindu worship services, causing minimal fire damage.

Police also were investigating a possible firebombing Sunday night in Elmont, in Nassau County, just east of Queens. A homeowner reported hearing glass shattering and smelling gasoline and found a broken glass bottle on his porch, county police said.

It's unclear if the attacks are related.

Political leaders spoke out against the attacks. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said NYPD hate crimes unit detectives were working with precinct detectives and looking into whether there were any connections to incidents outside the city.


Associated Press Writer Frank Eltman in Garden City, N.Y., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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