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The remnants of a newly built home that was burnt down and is under investigation of arson in Edmonton on Jan. 5. Police in at least three provinces are now dealing with investigations of extortion schemes with the common thread of targeting business owners in the South Asian community.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The RCMP has established a national team to help co-ordinate municipal police investigations in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario and share information about rings of criminals that are targeting South Asian businesses for extortion with links to shootings and arson.

Mounties say the team announced Thursday is not taking over any of these dozens of cases, but supporting the sharing of intelligence and evidence between forces including the Peel Regional Police Service, the Surrey RCMP and the Edmonton Police Service.

RCMP Superintendent Adam MacIntosh, the new team’s leader, says it is looking into “all similarities and motivations” behind the extortion threats, which are allegedly tied to organized crime groups with links to India.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth welcomed the formation of the federal task force Thursday, calling it an “important step forward in combatting organized crime and extortion attempts in our communities.”

Threats have been reported in several B.C. cities, including West Vancouver, White Rock, Abbotsford and Surrey through physical letters and phone calls and over social media apps.

In recent weeks, Ottawa had been under significant pressure from mayors of these cities, with Brampton’s Patrick Brown and Surrey’s Brenda Locke asking the federal government to help their police connect with forces in other countries, such as India, so that Canadian investigators can track the source of extortions.

Last week, Mr. Brown said he’s received phone calls from terrified business owners and families “expressing a complete level of desperation and dismay” about residences or businesses being shot at or set afire.

“This was terrorizing our community, this was terrorizing the South Asian community,” he said.

Peel police announced two dozen charges against five people last week amid their investigation into 29 incidents of alleged extortion, part of a trend that officials say has also terrorized the South Asian diaspora in the United States. Together with the Ontario Provincial Police, investigators announced these cases also involve incidents where businesses have been shot up.

Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah called the new crime trend a “significant issue” and noted the force scrambled a 23-person team to begin investigating these cases in December. That month, Peel police arrested a 23-year-old man from Abbotsford in connection with extortion threats that they said have caused security concerns in the community.

Also in December, police in Abbotsford revealed that extortion letters had been circulating among businesses in the eastern suburb of Vancouver and that its major crime unit was looking into them. Abbotsford police said at the time that social media posts depicting an extortion letter were consistent with what they’d been seeing.

The department also said it was investigating the leak of a police “Law Enforcement Only” bulletin that said investigators were looking into an “ongoing extortion” believed to be tied to two shootings at the homes of victims and an arson case. It said the suspects are believed to be tied to a gang based in India and the scheme targets “affluent members of the South Asian community.”

The bulletin said the Hindi-speaking suspects use the messaging service WhatsApp to contact victims and threaten violence after “demanding large quantities of currency.”

Police say the extortionists demand “protection money” from would-be victims, most of whom are members of the South Asian business community. Some have seen their businesses targeted with gunfire after refusing to pay up.

Meanwhile, Edmonton police say they have 34 cases open in a probe known as Project Gaslight, which is investigating instances of arson and gunshots. No injuries have been reported from the various shootings, the force said, but a firefighter was injured responding to one of the arsons and an estimated $9-million in property damage has been linked to these violent extortions.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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