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Huge manhunt underway after leader of mosque and friend shot dead

Crime WorldBy Sunday World
The scene of Saturday's shooting
The scene of Saturday's shooting

New York City police are searching for the man who shot dead the leader of a mosque and a friend as they left afternoon prayers.

The shootings set off fear and anguish among the community's Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants.

Police said no motive had been established for the killing of Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and 64-year-old Thara Uddin on Saturday afternoon near the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque.

However community members were worried that the killings could be rooted in intolerance.

"There's nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith," said Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner.

The imam's daughter, Naima Akonjee, said her father - described by worshippers as a pious man who gave compelling readings from the Koran - did not "have any problems with anyone."

She said the imam and Mr Uddin were close friends who always walked together to the mosque from their homes on the same street.

Police said the men were shot in the head as they left the mosque in the Ozone Park section of Queens shortly before 2pm. They were later pronounced dead.

Video surveillance showed they were approached from behind by a man in a dark polo shirt and shorts who shot them and fled south on 79th Street still holding the gun.

Police released a sketch of a dark-haired, bearded man wearing glasses and said witnesses described the gunman as a man with a medium complexion.

Members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community served by the mosque said they want the shootings to be treated as a hate crime.

More than 100 people attended a rally on Saturday night and chanted "We want justice!"

The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference near the shooting scene, where Kobir Chowdhury, a leader at another local mosque, said: "Read my lips: This is a hate crime" directed at Islam.

"We are peace-loving."

Sarah Sayeed, a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio's staff who liaises with Muslim communities, attended the rally.

"I understand the fear because I feel it myself," she said.

"I understand the anger. But it's very important to mount a thorough investigation."

Letitia James, the city's public advocate who serves as a watchdog over city agencies, said: "This violence is as alarming as it is senseless."

She urged the police department to "vigorously" investigate the killings.

Members of the community had felt animosity lately, with people cursing while passing the mosque, said worshipper Shahin Chowdhury.

He said he had advised people to be careful walking around, especially when in traditional clothing.

He called the imam a "wonderful person" with a voice that made his Koran readings especially compelling.

Worshipper Millat Uddin said Mr Akonjee led the mosque for about two years and was a very pious man.

"The community's heart is totally broken," said Mr Uddin, who is not related to Thara Uddin.

"It's a great misery. It's a great loss to the community and it's a great loss to the society."

Naima Akonjee, 28, one of the imam's seven children, said she rushed to her parents' home after the shooting.

She said her father was a caring man who would call her just to check up on whether she had eaten properly.

Neighbours also described Mr Uddin as a pious and thoughtful man who prayed five times a day and went to the mosque. While at home, they said he would water his garden and one next door.

"A very honest, wise man ... (And) a very helpful guy," said neighbour Mohammed Uddin, who is not a relation of Thara Uddin's.