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Annan: Racism "universally condemned"  

DURBAN, South Africa -- An appeal by the U.N. secretary-general to avoid "mutual accusations" at a racism conference seemed to fall on deaf ears when the Palestinian leader accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing."

Yasser Arafat urged the United Nations World Conference Against Racism to condemn Israel's "colonial, racist plot" against the Palestinians in its final declaration on September 7.

Acknowledging rows that dogged preparations for the United Nations-organised meeting in the South African port of Durban, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was a test of the international community's ability to unite on a vital issue. "Let us not fail that test," he said.

"If we leave here without agreement we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society," he told Friday's opening session of the eight-day summit.

The lingering legacy of apartheid: CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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Delegates from 166 countries are attending the world conference, despite fears that it may be dominated by controversies over Israel and slavery.

A declaration of principles and a plan of action to tackle racism and protect the rights of ethnic minorities are due to be signed at the conference.

The United States and Canada have only sent low-level delegations because of strongly anti-Israeli language in the draft declaration that followed weeks of haggling between diplomats in Geneva.

The level of Washington's discontent was clear on Friday when it put a junior official, diplomat John Blaney, in its seat at the opening session with instructions not to speak.

"There is somebody sitting in the seat but not necessarily participating. He will not be speaking. We are observing, I guess would be the the most appropriate term," a State Department official said.

Israel is sending a low-level mission to the conference, the Israeli Foreign Ministry says.

Annan, in his opening speech to the conference, said Israel could not use "the ultimate abomination" of the Holocaust as an excuse to never examine its own behaviour.

"We cannot expect Palestinians to accept this (the Holocaust) as a reason why the wrongs done to them -- displacement, occupation, blockade, and now extra-judicial killings -- should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them," he said.

Up to 10,000 demonstrators chanted anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. slogans as they marched through the centre of Durban on Friday. Reuters reported scuffles when armed police stopped them from delivering petitions to the racism conference.

The draft declaration does not equate Zionism with racism but it says: "Foreign occupation founded on settlements ... (is) a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity."

Arafat told a panel meeting of leaders: "This brutality and arrogance are moved by a mentality of superiority that practises racism and racial discrimination, that adopts ethnic cleansing.

"What we can hope for is that this conference will say what is bad, what is just in the face of this bloody tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people. It is a colonial racist plot, a plot of aggression, of uprooting, of taking over land as well."

About 700 people have died in Israeli-Palestinian violence that began after peace talks stalled last September.

Mbeki: Bitter experience of racism

Earlier, South African President Thabo Mbeki painted a bleak picture of a world split between rich whites and poor blacks.

Mbeki skipped diplomatic niceties in his speech to 6,000 delegates in the former bastion of white power in Africa.

"It became necessary that we convene ... because, together, we recognised the fact there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white.

"Their cultures and traditions are despised as savage and primitive and their identities denied. They are not white and are deeply immersed in poverty. Of them it is said that they are human but black, whereas others are described as human and white," Mbeki said.

"I speak in these terms, which some may think are too harsh and stark, because I come from a people that have known the bitter experience of slavery, colonialism and racism," he said.

Acrimony has existed over the slave trade legacy. Some African states have been demanding an apology from the former slave profiteering states, as well as possible reparations.

But European countries and the U.S., with its large Afro-American population, have firmly ruled out anything which could expose them to hugely expensive law suits.

Other African leaders echoed Mbeki's sentiments. Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused European countries of pitting Africans against each other in the colonial era, and said Belgium's policies had contributed to the genocide in Rwanda.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said racism was a lot of nonsense used to cover up exploitation of blacks. "People were divided along mythical lines such as the colour of their skin or their perceived intelligence," Kagame said.

Fidel Castro of Cuba and a dozen African presidents were in the audience, but there were virtually no political heavyweights from Europe, North America or Asia.

• United Nations
• World Conference against Racism

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