WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (AP) - Racial prejudice motivated more than half the 7,876 hate crimes committed in 1999 that were reported to the FBI, the bureau said Tuesday.

As in 1998, 1997 and 1996, racial prejudice was the most common motivation for hate crimes, accounting for 4,295 incidents in 1999.

There also were 1,411 incidents attributed to prejudice against the target's religion, 1,317 incidents over sexual orientation, 829 over ethnic or national origin, 19 over disabilities and five over multiple prejudices, the FBI said.

The data came from 12,122 law enforcement agencies in 48 states and the District of Columbia, representing 85 percent of the nation's population.

In 1998, there were 7,755 hate crime incidents, of which 4,321 were racially motivated. But the 1998 data came from 10,730 law enforcement agencies in 46 states and the District of Columbia, representing 80 percent of the nation's population.

So the 1999 total was 121 higher than the 1998 figure but the data came from 1,392 more police agencies than in 1998.

Because the number of agencies reporting varies under the voluntary system established by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, officials caution against drawing conclusions about trends in hate crime volumes between years. They say the figures provide a rough picture of the general nature of hate crimes.

In 1999, crimes against people accounted for 66.5 percent of the offenses, with intimidation the most frequent of all hate crimes at 35.1 percent of the total. Vandalism and destruction of property accounted for 28.5 percent of all reported offenses, simple assault for 19 percent and aggravated assault for 12 percent.

Seventeen people were murdered in 1999 hate crimes, with nine attributed to race bias and three apiece to bias against sexual orientation and prejudice against ethnic or national origin. Two murders were motivated by religious bias.

Of the 9,802 hate crime victims, 82.8 percent were people and the remainder were businesses, religious organizations or other targets. Of the total victims, 56.3 percent were targeted because of their race. Blacks were by far the most frequent victims of hate crimes, numbering 3,679 or 37.5 percent of all victims.

Of the 1,686 victims of religious prejudice, more than 65 percent involved crimes against property. The overwhelming majority of victims, 1,289, were Jewish targets.

In 1999, the largest segment of hate crime incidents occurred on residential property, 28.7 percent. Incidents in alleys, streets or highways accounted for 18.5 percent of total incidents, and another 10.2 percent occurred at schools or colleges. The rest were at varied locations.

Clinton administration efforts to expand federal criminal civil rights law to protect homosexuals, women and the disabled were blocked by Republicans in Congress. The legislation would have added acts of hatred motivated by sexual orientation, gender and disability to the list of hate crimes already covered - acts sparked by prejudice based on race, religion, color or national origin.

Opponents have said the measure would discriminate by creating special classes of victims like gays, would usurp states' rights and would have a chilling effect on free speech.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's spokeswoman Mindy Tucker has said he's willing to take a look at any proposals to expand the law. Ashcroft himself has said he would enforce any provision enacted by Congress. The Bush administration has not taken a position on expanding hate crime laws.

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