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Australia Apologizes to Aborigines

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made a historic apology to the country's Aboriginal people for past mistreatment. Mr. Rudd said past policies of assimilation under which indigenous children were taken from their families were a 'stain on the nation's soul'. From Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory, Phil Mercer reports.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has apologized to the 'Stolen Generations'.

These were Aboriginal children who were taken from their families in an attempt to dilute indigenous culture. They were the victims of an assimilation policy that began in 1910 and lasted into the early 1970s.

Mr. Rudd said it was a dark period in the nation's history and issued a formal apology in the nation's parliament in Canberra.

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these 'Stolen Generations', their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry," he said. "To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry; and for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."

The declaration has come 11 years after an official report on Australia's past assimilation policies, which urged the government to issue a formal apology.

The conservative former prime minister, John Howard, refused to take such a step, insisting that current generations of Australians should not apologize for injustices of the past.

Opinion polls have suggested that many Australians agree with Mr. Howard's stance and believe it was not necessary to say sorry.

Tribal elders are welcoming Prime Minister Rudd's apology, saying that for the first time they feel embraced and valued by Australian society.

Mr. Rudd says the problems faced by Australia's Aborigines - very high rates of ill-health, unemployment and imprisonment - are so serious that he plans to assemble a so-called 'war cabinet' to address them.

However, tackling such disadvantage has been beyond governments in the past. Indigenous people, who comprise two percent of the country's population of 21 million, have a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.