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Plight of Sudanese slaves witnessed by top U.S. official in Africa

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice, center left, walks through the market in Marial Bai, southern Sudan accompanied by officials and soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army  

RUMBEK, Sudan (Reuters) -- The U.S. government's top official for Africa met women freed from slavery in Sudan and called Monday for action to end the "heinous" practice.

On a rare visit by a senior U.S. official to rebel-held south Sudan, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice said the United States would work tirelessly to stamp out slavery in Africa's largest country.

The United Nations estimates that up to 15,000 southern Sudanese -- mostly women and children -- have been abducted in raids on southern villages by Arab militiamen in the last decade and taken to the north to be sold as slaves.

But Sudan's government and parts of the international community have refused to accept the practice still exists in a nation with a history of slave trading.


"Part of why I am here is to show the world that despite what the government in Khartoum says, despite what some of our partners in the European Union may want to pretend ... slavery exists, it has to be acknowledged and it has to be addressed," Rice told journalists in the southern town of Rumbek.

"We have an obligation not only to speak out but to ameliorate the suffering."

The United States, which accuses Khartoum's Islamist government of sponsoring international terrorism, imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions on Sudan in 1997, and forbids its companies from investing in the country's new-found oil wealth.

It says the government aids and abets Arab militia in raiding southern villages -- usually on horseback -- to loot, burn and leave with a booty of cattle and slaves.

Rebels from the mainly black African, Christian and animist south of Sudan, who have been fighting the government for 17 years for greater freedoms, say the practice is aimed at depopulating and terrorizing rebel-held areas.

Rice meets former slaves

The town of Marial Bai, in the far north of the mostly rebel-controlled province of Bahr el Ghazal, has been raided on several occasions in recent years.

Here, townspeople slaughtered a cow in honor of Rice's visit and a group of women in ragged floral dresses -- who had escaped their captors -- gave their testimonies.

Akot Daou, 21, cradles her daugher Amath, as she tells U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rice how she was captured by militiamen loyal to the government in May 1998 and sold as a slave in the north before she escaped back to southern Sudan  

"I had to clean clothes, clean the house, look after the cattle, everything," said Anuat Majak Dhum, who was abducted with her baby girl four years ago. "I was completely a slave, more than a slave," she said.

"I was continuously beaten because whenever I would stop to feed my baby with my breast milk, somebody would get angry and say I wasn't working."

Rice said the racial and religious dimensions of Sudan's civil war "cut to the core" of the struggles of American history.

"The Sudan issue resonates in a way with the American public on a scale we haven't seen since the anti-apartheid movement," she said. She added that U.S. policy on Sudan had wide political support at home which she did not expect to be "subject to significant revision" by the next administration.

Rice also condemned government bomb attacks on civilian targets in the south. On the same day the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), claimed 10 civilians had been killed in an aerial bombardment on the southern town of Yei.

"The people are paralyzed with fear. The bombings have terrorized and traumatized them," Rice said after visiting a mission hospital that was bombed earlier this year.

The United States is the biggest single donor of humanitarian assistance to southern Sudan and has given around $1.5 billion in aid to the rebel-held areas in the past decade.

But Rice denied that the United States gave military support to the SPLA.

"The United States' policy is not to support overtly or covertly any side from a military point of view," she said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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