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Australia officially apologizes for degrading policies in the past.

Aborigines organized breakfast barbecues today in Outback communities, giant TV screens went up in state capitals, and schools held assemblies that allowed students to watch the telecast of Australia's government apologizing for policies that degraded its indigenous people.

In a historic parliamentary vote that supporters said would open a new chapter in race relations in the country, lawmakers unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's motion to apologize on behalf of all Australians.

"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians," Rudd said in Parliament, reading from the motion.

Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group, and Rudd has made improving their lives one of his government's top priorities.

The apology is directed at tens of thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under now abandoned assimilation policies.

"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 apology places Australia among a handful of nations that have offered official apologies to oppressed minorities, including Canada's 1998 apology to its native peoples, South Africa's 1992 expression of regret for apartheid and the U.S. Congress' 1988 law apologizing to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II.

There are about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia's population of 21-million. They are the country's poorest group, with the highest rates of imprisonment, unemployment and illiteracy. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.

The previous government of John Howard refused to apologize, partly because it did not feel responsible for the misdeeds of past administrations but also partly from fear that an apology would lead to enormous compensation claims.

Last year, a court in South Australia awarded $475,000 to Bruce Trevorrow, who was taken from his mother when he was a baby, for unlawful treatment and false imprisonment.

Rudd ruled out compensation - a stance that helped secure support for the apology among the many Australians who believe they should not be held responsible for past policies, no matter how flawed.

Aboriginal leaders generally welcomed Rudd's apology, though some said it was empty rhetoric without addressing the issue of compensation.

Noel Pearson, a respected Aboriginal leader from Queensland state, wrote in the Australian newspaper on Tuesday that offering an apology without compensation meant: "Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas keep the money."

Michael Mansell, spokesman for the rights group the National Aboriginal Alliance, said the word "sorry" was one that "Stolen Generation members will be very relieved is finally being used."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Fast facts

'Stolen Generations'

Australian policies from 1910 until 1969 resulted in 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children being taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were dying out. A 1997 report by the government's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission said most Aborigines were deeply traumatized by the loss of their families and culture and called them the "Stolen Generations."