BEIJING, Dec. 15 (AFP) -- Five members of China's Islamic Hui minority, killed by para-military police earlier this week, were buried on Friday watched by large crowds of enraged Muslims.

The five were among victims shot when officers in China's Shandong province opened fire on Muslim demonstrators Wednesday, also injuring more than 40, they said.

The clash, which the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy called one of the worst instances of religious/ethnic violence in China in recent years, took place in Shandong's Yangxin county, where confrontations between Muslims and non-Muslims have been heating up.

Those killed and injured were among 700 Hui people who had traveled from Mengcun county in neighboring Hebei province to protest what they saw as deliberate provocations against their faith, said Liu Zhen, a student at a Xinxian mosque in Mengcun.

On arrival they were met by 300 police officers armed with guns who tried to block their entry into Yangxin.

"It happened in three steps," Liu told AFP by telephone. "First the police shot into the air, then into the ground, and then directly into the crowd."

Even after the five who were killed had been laid to rest in their ancestral homes, only some of the injured had returned, while others were still hospitalized in Shandong, he said.

According to the Hong Kong-based center, five of the injured have been taken to a hospital in Mengcun where at least one remains in a critical condition.

The case has triggered widespread attention among scattered Islamic communities, and large numbers of Muslims from the nearby municipality of Tianjin travelled to Mengcun, said Zhang Menghui, a staff member at a local mosque.

After Friday's funeral, large numbers of Muslims demonstrated in front of Mengcun county government buildings, demanding compensation for the victims and punishment of those responsible.

Zhang cited rumors saying Shandong province had agreed to pay a total of one million yuan ($120,000) to the victims.

Wednesday's clash was the culmination of a three-month-long confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the county.

The situation was triggered on September 20 when a pork vendor in the county's Heliu village advertised the sale of "Muslim pork."

This angered members of the local Hui community who tried to get the shop owner to pull down the sign and then went to petition the county government, said an employee at the local Liumiao mosque, who gave his surname as Zhang.

In response, the county government and the police in October publicly stated that the Hui people, through their protests, had "seriously violated the law."

"Three were arrested for illegal gathering, which infuriated the Hui community," said Zhang.

When they heard of the incidents, Hui people from other parts of China traveled to the county to protest, clashing with police three times in November, according to the Hong Kong-based rights center.

Tensions boiled over Saturday night, when a pig's head was placed in front of a mosque in Yangxin, the center said.

Government and party officials in Heliu contacted by AFP on Friday denied any incident had happened.

China's 8.6-million Hui minority is scattered throughout many parts of the mainland, from Xinjiang region and Yunnan province in the west to Shandong in the east. According to tradition, they are the descendants of Arab and Persian traders who settled in China as early as the seventh century A.D.

In the following centuries, they have become almost entirely assimilated with China's majority Han population, and are now only distinguishable by their religion.

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