Asian shopkeepers have said that they fear for their safety after three firebomb attacks on local businesses in South London in two weeks. One shopkeeper has died in the attacks and another has been critically injured.
Police believe that the firebomber is motivated by race, rather than religion, as the victims include Muslims and Hindus from a variety of countries.
Last Thursday the attacker, described as black and in his thirties, was seen throwing a petrol bomb through a window of the Pricecutter store in Kennington. The explosion set off a fierce blaze and trapped Khizar Hayat, a father in his forties from Kashmir, and a colleague inside the building. Mr Hayat later died from severe burns. His fellow worker, originally from Afghanistan, was in a critical condition last night in hospital. Two other men ran through the flames to safety.
Officers working at the police station opposite the shop witnessed the attack. They gave chase but failed to capture the man.
At a press conference at Scotland Yard yesterday, detectives said that the attacker had been linked to firebombings at a Tulse Hill newsagent and a South Norwood corner shop last month.
Releasing an artist’s impression of the man, Detective Superintendent Dick Heselden gave a warning that he could strike again. “In the absence of any other possible motive, I’m working on the basis that these are racially motivated attacks,” he said. “It’s my opinion that we’re dealing with a serial firebomber who is targeting small Asian businesses. We are very concerned that this individual may offend again.”
Mr Hayat moved to Britain two years ago, intending to earn money to send back to his wife and children in Kashmir after the family was left homeless by an earthquake. Police trying to contact his family have been hampered by poor communications.
In the first arson attack, in Tulse Hill on April 14, the man threw a petrol bomb, made from a plastic bottle and a paper wick, into a newsagents. Six days later, police believe the same man opened the door to an off-licence in South Norwood and threw in a similar device before fleeing.
Witnesses to all three attacks describe the arsonist as a stocky black man with broad shoulders in his thirties, about 5ft 8in and with a shaven head and barrell chest. He was wearing a dark top with a pale grey band across the middle. He is thought to be from either Croydon or the Lambeth area.
Ian Hughes, of the London Fire Brigade, said at yesterday’s press conference that all shopowners should make sure they knew the quickest way to leave their premises in an emergency. “They must ensure at all times that the means of escape are available, unblocked and people can get through them,” he said.