Police closing in on the unmasking of gang in hate stunt at mosque
Police are investigating links between loyalist paramilitaries and a gang of men who gathered outside a Co Down mosque dressed in Ku Klux Klan-style outfits.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that police are close to identifying a number of the men involved in the incident in Newtownards on Saturday night which is being treated as a hate crime.
This newspaper has also learned that an active line of enquiry is a link to "organised crime", a phrase commonly associated with paramilitary activity.
The picture of the men posing outside the Bangladesh Islamic Prayer Centre on Greenwell Street sparked global outrage after making headlines on CNN, Washington Post, Al Jazeera and many other international news outlets.
Earlier this week politicians and church leaders condemned the actions of the group of at least nine hooded individuals who were filmed doing fascist salutes while draped in the sinister garbs splashed with fake blood.
The Rev Norman McAuley of Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church, which is located next door to the centre, appealed to the men to identify themselves.
"If it was just a Halloween prank then come forward and explain it, hold your hands up and say so," he urged them. "Just admit it was a joke that, in hindsight, was in very poor taste."
A statement was also issued on behalf of Ards Churches Together, a group of leaders from various denominations calling on those responsible to come forward to police.
But so far they have remained hidden and silent.
The Belfast Telegraph previously revealed that one of the men in the outfits was pictured embracing Sharon Mellor, the girlfriend of National Front leader Tony Martin, in a Newtownards pub on the same night.
The Gillingham native, who now lives in Newtownards, once "joked" about torching the same mosque which once had a pig's head placed outside it. Mellor insisted the encounter was a coincidence.
"I wasn't with them, I merely posed for a picture," she said.
The prayer centre's chairman Shibaji Miah has praised the positive response from the local community and the police on behalf of the small number of worshippers who have lived in the town since 1980.
"We appreciate it as it allows us to go about our business," he added.
However not everyone was sympathetic to the faith community.
"From what I've seen Newtownards has rallied round the KKK," one resident wrote on social media.
Another local resident wrote: "What about seeking out those clowns dressed as terrorist IRA members and that's not even a Halloween stunt?"