Reports that a group of people dressed as Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members posed outside an Islamic prayer house are being investigated as a hate incident, police said.
Images circulating on social media purport to show individuals dressed as members of the far-right group in a town close to Belfast over the weekend.
The suspected incident happened in the Co Down town of Newtownards on Saturday evening.
The group are understood to have posed near an Islamic prayer house.
A local resident, who asked not to be named, said: "I saw them on Saturday night, passing by Georges Street, Newtownards. They were fully robed and crossing over to 'The Pub', a bar in Ards.
"One of them gave a fascist salute to his KKK clad friends before they all crossed over and went into the bar.
"This was about 10.30pm, Saturday evening. I saw them again, leaving the bar, still robed, at 2am."
One of the bars they entered was The Spirit Merchant JD Wetherspoon.
Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon said: "We can confirm that a group dressed in KKK clothing came to our pub, The Spirit Merchant, in Newtownards.
"They were refused entry by door staff, but pushed past them into the pub.
"They were told by bar staff that they would not be served.
"They remained in the pub for five minutes, unserved, and then left."
The KKK was a group based in the southern United States which was responsible for lynchings and mob attacks on black people.
The incident has been roundly condemned, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is treating it as a hate crime.
Inspector Richard Murray said: "We received a report around 5pm yesterday, Sunday 28 October, about a group of people dressed as KKK members in the vicinity of Greenwell Street in the town on Saturday night.
"We are also aware of images that are circulating that show people dressed as Ku Klux Klan members.
"Our inquiries are ongoing, and we are treating this as a hate incident at this time."
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton (pictured) told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show: "It's disgusting, distasteful. It's horrible, we don't need it, there's no place for it anywhere in Northern Ireland.
"We will investigate this, we'll gather evidence and we'll report that evidence to the Public Prosecution Service."
Democratic Unionist MLA Peter Weir said there scenes are "totally unacceptable".
"The PSNI will be investigating this matter, and I call on anyone with any information to come forward to the police," he said.
"Such boorish and malevolent behaviour has no place in our town and it is right that it is condemned across the board."
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said: "Everyone knows exactly what the KKK stands for.
"The KKK represents a brand of hatred not wanted or welcome in the area.
"This group did not simply dress up for Halloween, rather they deliberately posed outside the prayer house in Newtownards.
"This is a clear demonstration of aggression and bullying towards one particular religion and that is a hate crime."
Last year, a pig's head was placed outside the same centre in Newtownards.
Sinn Fein MLA Mairtin O Muilleoir welcomed the universal condemnation of the incident.
"The people who posed as members of the Ku Klux Klan outside an Islamic Centre should know that the entire society is appalled by these actions and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the victims of this intimidation," he said.
"I call on the PSNI to do all they can to bring those responsible for this hate crime to book."
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