A FIRE at a Basingstoke mosque is being treated as suspicious and potentially racially motivated.

Emergency services were called to the Albirr Masjid mosque, in Sarum Hill, at 3.30am on Saturday after a neighbour reported seeing flames and smoke at the rear of the building.

A small fire was discovered to have taken hold in the roof space and a total of 16 firefighters spent two hours tackling the blaze, which caused some damage inside the building.

No one was in the mosque at the time of the incident.

Detective Inspector David Collins, of Basingstoke CID, who is the senior investigating officer in the case, said he was not ruling out a racial element to the incident.

"In the current climate, we suspect this incident might be racially motivated," he said.

"Arson is serious because it has the potential to take life.

"Whoever did this has the potential to do it again and next time it could be worse, with either greater damage to property or loss of life.

"It is in the community's interest that the person or people responsible are arrested and dealt with in the proper way."

Police officers had spent Friday providing a visual presence outside the mosque during prayers. The move was prompted after national security services uncovered a suspected plot to plant bombs on flights to the US.

Det Insp Collins said local officers were working with Basingstoke's Muslims, adding: "We are concerned with the need to keep in close contact with the local Muslim community.

"They have been extremely co-operative and responsive and good lines of communication have been set up."

Referring to the mosque fire, Assistant Chief Constable Steve Watts, of Hampshire Constabulary, said: "If incidents such as this happen anywhere across the two counties Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, I can assure the public that they will be dealt with effectively and robustly.

"In this current climate, we cannot rule out the possibility that this incident is related to the recent security threat.

"Therefore, we are treating it extremely seriously and dealing with it appropriately."

In a statement released yesterday, members of the public who attend the mosque voiced their dismay.

The statement read: "We are shocked and disappointed by this incident, and especially that this happened to a place of worship.

"We appreciate the co-operation of the police in this matter."

Officers said the damage could have been much worse had it not been for the actions of the neighbour who noticed the flames and alerted the fire service.

The woman, who asked not to be named, said: "I had woken up because I had a terrible nightmare. I heard a cracking and popping noise and, when I looked out, I saw smoke and a yellow-orange glow at the back of the mosque.

"I am pleased I saw it early and glad no one was hurt."

Doreen Williams, who lives near the mosque, said she was sad that the Muslims had been targeted.

"They are great neighbours and I am very upset that this has happened because they are nice people," she said.

"We have never had any problems with them and they always say hello when they see me."

Basingstoke detectives are keen to talk to anyone who was in the Sarum Hill area at about 3am on Saturday.

Det Insp Collins said: "People in the area at the time may have seen something and could be a valuable witness, but we also need to eliminate as many people as possible from our enquiries.

"Therefore, I would like anyone who passed through Sarum Hill between 3am and 3.30am to come forward."

Anyone who was in the area should contact Basingstoke CID on 0845 045 4545 or call the confidential Crimestoppers line on 0800 555 111.