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Saturday, October 9, 1999 Published at 00:45 GMT 01:45 UK

World: Africa

Slave buy-back berated by UN

Children are abducted from the south to be slaves

United Nations campaigners have denounced a Swiss-based human rights charity for again buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves.

BBC's Jane Little: "Tales of rape, murder and abuse are common"
The charity, Christian Solidarity International, said it had paid the equivalent of US$50 a head to Arab middlemen for 4,300 slaves.

It brings to more than 15,000 the number of slaves it has bought since 1995.

But the group's actions have been damned by the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef, which says the tactic actually fuels the slave trade.

The latest operation is by far the biggest number of slaves to be "redeemed" - Christian Solidarity's terminology - in one go by the Zurich-based group.

Women and children

The group says it took place over five days and those freed were mainly women and children from southern Sudan.

South Sudan has been ravaged by decades of civil war between the Muslim, Arab north and its African south, which is mainly Christian or animist.

[ image: Slaves can be bought back for $50]
Slaves can be bought back for $50
Southerners say Arab armed militias ride from the north on horseback to loot and abduct women and children to sell as slaves.

The scale of the practice is unknown but stories of rape, murder and abuse are common.

The UN recognises the existence of a slave trade in Sudan and has put pressure on the Islamic government to outlaw it. Khartoum denies it and will only admit to that fact that abductees are forced into labour.

But the UN is at odds with Christian Solidarity International's approach to the problem, claiming it does not attack the root causes.

Faking abduction

Critics of the charity also say they have heard stories of poor families faking abduction to profit from the ransom money.

But CSI's president, Hans Stuckelberger, defends his methods.

"There is a controversial aspect as to whether we buy people, but we don't buy people, we liberate them," said Mr Stuckelberger.

"Of course the ultimate goal of what we do is the abolition of slavery in Sudan."

The group insists that it will continue its activities in Sudan until every captive has been freed.

UN suspension

But it is becoming increasingly isolated in the international arena. Carol Bellamy of Unicef said the practice had "encouraged more trafficking and criminality".

Earlier this year the UN voted to suspend the charity's observer status at the behest of Sudan.

Khartoum objected that it broke the rules when it sponsored the southern rebel leader John Garang to speak at a committee session.

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