ETHNIC unrest had not hurt economic development in Qinghai province, senior government officials said yesterday. Instead the officials from the arid northwest province blamed poverty and underdevelopment for their backward economy. Speaking in Hong Kong, Qinghai Executive Vice-Governor Wang Hanmin confirmed that riots had broken out in the provincial capital Xining last month but said the protesters were only a small group of law-breaking Muslims. Mr Wang's remarks were in sharp contrast with official media reports which admitted ethnic unrest posed the greatest threat to social stability in Qinghai. The October riots were triggered by a book published by a Sichuan publisher that contained a picture of Muslims praying next to a pig. Eating pork is considered sacrilegious by Muslims - a major ethnic group of the 4.61 million population in Qinghai. ''A handful of Muslims had broken the law and disrupted social order and stability when they expressed their feeling [against this book],'' Mr Wang said. ''The Government has therefore taken action to quell the unrest and the situation in Xining has returned to normal. ''This incident has not affected our plans to develop the economy and import of foreign investment. It has also not changed [our determination] to maintain a stable and unified Qinghai.'' The Vice-Governor said different ethnic groups had ''lived harmoniously together'' for the past 40 years. Foreign news agencies reported that last month Chinese paramilitary police raided a mosque in Xining to crush a five-week standoff by Muslim protesters. Anti-riot police were later mobilised to stop Muslim petitioners who wanted to take their protest to Beijing. The agencies reported that dozens of Muslim protesters were killed in the crackdown. But Mr Wang yesterday stressed the police had acted ''strictly according to the law''. He said economic reform was the only way to solve the ethnic problems. Jia Xitai, director of Qinghai Provincial Finance and Economic Committee, said minorities such as Muslims also supported the Government's economic reform plan. ''Many of the Muslims [in Qinghai] are the biggest players in our economy and some are in fact millionaires,'' Mr Jia said. However, the vice-governor admitted that a stable social environment was essential for Qinghai to combat poverty and develop its economy.