VANCOUVER: Canadian police on Friday arrested three men over the killing last year in Vancouver of a Sikh separatist, whose death has been linked to the Indian government.

The murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar plunged Canada and India into a serious diplomatic crisis last fall after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Indian government involvement in the homicide.

India dismissed the allegations as “absurd” and responded furiously, briefly curbing visas for Canadians and forcing Ottawa to withdraw diplomats.

Three Indian nationals, two aged 22 and one aged 28, were arrested Friday and charged with first degree murder and conspiracy charges. They are accused of being the shooter, driver and lookout on the day Nijjar was killed.

They were arrested by police in Edmonton, in the neighboring province of Alberta, where they reside, and are being held pending further proceedings.

All had been in Canada for between three and five years, police said at a news conference.

“This investigation does not end here. We are aware that others may have played a role in this homicide,” said Mandeep Mooker of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s homicide investigations team.

Nijjar — who immigrated to Canada in 1997 and became a citizen in 2015 — advocated for a separate Sikh state, known as Khalistan, carved out of India.

He was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder.

On June 18, 2023, he was shot dead by masked assailants in the parking lot of the Sikh temple he led in suburban Vancouver.

Trudeau announced several months later that Canada had “credible allegations” linking Indian intelligence to the killing and expelled an Indian official, spurring the diplomatic tit-for-tat with New Delhi.

Mooker said Canadian police are still investigating the ties of the suspects, “if any, to the Indian government.”

“It is a bit of a sigh of relief that the investigation is moving forward,” Moninder Singh, a close friend of Nijjar, told AFP.

“It is ultimately India who is responsible and hiring individuals to assassinate Sikh leaders in foreign countries,” said Singh, spokesperson for the British Columbia Council of Gurdwaras.

In November, the US Justice Department charged an Indian citizen living in the Czech Republic with allegedly plotting a similar assassination attempt on American soil.

Prosecutors said in unsealed court documents that an Indian government official was also involved in the planning.

The shock allegations came after US President Joe Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a rare state visit, as Washington seeks closer ties with India against China’s growing influence.

US intelligence agencies have assessed that the plot on American soil was approved by India’s top spy official at the time, Samant Goel, The Washington Post reported this week.

Canada is home to some 770,000 Sikhs, who make up about two percent of the country’s population, with a vocal minority calling for an independent state of Khalistan.

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