RALEIGH/washington - The families of three Muslim students shot dead by a neighbor in the US said an emotional farewell to their loved ones Thursday, reiterating calls for the killings to be treated as a hate crime.

More than 5,000 people gathered for the funeral of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his new wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who authorities say were killed by a neighbor in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill. The alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was believed to be strongly opposed to religion, as his Facebook page showed dozens of anti-religious posts, including proclamations denouncing Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.

Police said they were investigating Tuesday's fatal shootings as a parking dispute, but victims' families repeated their belief the attack was religiously motivated. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had launched a parallel probe into the killings. Federal prosecutors often look into suspected hate-crime cases - a conviction for "hate crime" results in a tougher sentence. "We are definitely certain that our daughters were targeted for their religion," the father of the sisters, Mohammad Abu-Salha, told AFP.

"This is not a parking dispute, these children were executed with shots in the back of the heads," he said, surrounded by tearful family members as they prepared for the final funeral prayer.

Obama deploreS killings

US President Barack Obama Friday condemned the recent murder of three Muslim-American students in North Carolina as “brutal and outrageous, saying no one should be targeted in America on the basis of their colour or creed.

In a statement released by the White House, Obama said, “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.”