LONDON (Reuters) - British detectives said on Wednesday that a man wanted for questioning over the murder of a female police officer could have fled the country disguised as a Muslim woman wearing a full veil.
Mustaf Jama, 26, is thought by police to have escaped to his native Somalia at the end of last year after passing through security checks at London's Heathrow Airport wearing a niqab and using his sister's passport, newspaper reports said.
Muslim groups accused the media of Islamophobia by raising the controversial subject of the veil without any real evidence.
Jama is a chief suspect in the murder of police constable Sharon Beshenivsky, 38, who was shot dead during a botched armed robbery on a travel agency in northern England in November last year.
The theory about how he might have left Britain emerged after his younger brother Yusuf was found guilty of the police officer's murder on Monday.
Asked whether Mustaf Jama had used a full Muslim veil to evade checks, a spokesman for West Yorkshire police said: "It's a possibility. He could have been wearing a pantomime horse outfit as well. But until we get him, we won't know for sure."
The Home Office (interior ministry) said people leaving the country did not face emigration checks and such security matters were the responsibility of the British Airports Authority (BAA), which runs most of the country's airports.
However BAA denied it was responsible and said individual airlines should be checking passengers' passport details.
The reports have refocused attention again on the niqab, the full veil that covers the face which is worn by a small minority of Muslim women in Britain.
Many British Muslims say the constant debate about the veil is divisive and alienates the Islamic community.
"It is like open season against Muslims in this country," Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News newspaper told Reuters.
In October, Prime Minister Tony Blair called the niqab "a mark of separation", amid a heated debate about how to better integrate Britain's 1.8 million Muslims and win their support in rooting out radicals after four young British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people in London last year.