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US-Led Team Investigates Allegations of Slavery in Sudan

A U.S.-led team arrives in Sudan Tuesday to investigate allegations that thousands of women and children are being kidnapped from southern Sudan and used as bonded labor.

Led by Penn Kemble, a former director of the U.S. Information Agency, the team is made up of international experts, all with extensive experience working in Sudan. They are part of a renewed U.S. effort to help end Sudan's 19-year-old civil war.

The group will initially spend 10 days in Sudan visiting both the south where the raids take place and the north which is the final destination for most abductees.

A technical team will stay behind for another six weeks to follow up investigations before the full group returns to Sudan in mid-May to wrap up the report.

Sudan's government has welcomed the international team.

Mohamed Dirdeiry, a senior official at the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi, says their investigations will finally prove to the world that slavery does not exist in his country.

"From our side of the government we are quite sure there is no slavery per se in Sudan, and we are welcoming the international community to investigate for itself," he said. "The efforts which were made by most international NGOs towards redeeming some of the slaves have been proved to be completely elusive, and a lot of what they were doing in the past has been found to be something which was done only because they had fallen victims for some ploys deployed by the SPLA or others."

The SPLA is the Sudan People's Liberation Front, the main southern rebel group. It has been fighting for greater independence from the government since 1983.

Slave raiding is an age-old practice between Sudan's cattle herding Baggara and Dinka tribes and gathered fresh impetus with the renewal of Sudan's civil war in 1983.

Rights groups charge that the government provided the Baggara with guns and horses and encouraged them to raid Dinka villages. This is an effective weapon of war as Dinkas make up the core of SPLA support.

Mr Dirdeiry denies this. He says the government was forced to arm the Baggara because they were being attacked by the SPLA. "The government because it cannot protect them by deploying any military forces there, gave them weapons in order to protect themselves," he said. "They are entitled to protect themselves, and they are entitled to at least having some weapons or sort of assistance from the central government. Maybe some of them had misused whatever assistance they had received from the government, but it was not given to them at all in order to enslave anybody."

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says it hopes that the slavery investigation team will produce a balanced, accurate report to put pressure on Sudan's government to tackle the problem more rigorously.