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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia apologized on Wednesday for the historic mistreatment of Aborigines, heralding a new era in race relations and moving indigenous people to tears as huge crowds cheered across the nation.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led the parliamentary apology to members of the Stolen Generations of aborigines, who were forcibly taken from their families and communities when they were young children under old assimilation policies.
In unprecedented scenes for Australia's parliament, a huge crowd of more than 7,000 people gathered on the lawns outside to watch as the apology was broadcast live to giant screens, with Aborigines and supporters cheering as Rudd said "sorry".
"It makes the indigenous community feel, for the first time in a real long time, really feel part of Australia, that it's embraced by the whole Australian nation," Stolen Generation elder Mark Bin Bakar told Reuters.
"It's about us coming together as a country, acknowledging our past and moving on, accepting each other as brothers and sisters of this nation," he said.
Others paused at city squares, town halls and schools around the country to watch the speech, which is expected to open a new era of reconciliation between indigenous and white Australians.
In Sydney's inner-city suburb of Redfern, home to a large aboriginal community, hundreds stood in heavy rain and cheered each of the three times Rudd said "sorry".
"Sorry heals the heart, and it goes deep," said Redfern aboriginal activist Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor.
The parliamentary apology comes 11 years after a report into past assimilation policies found between one in three and one in 10 aboriginal children had been taken from their families between 1910 and 1970.
The report urged a national apology to those affected, known as the Stolen Generations, but the then conservative government under prime minister John Howard rejected the finding and offered only a statement of regret.
"Today, the parliament has come together to right a great wrong," Rudd said.
"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 made the apology the first item of parliamentary business for centre-left Labor, which won power in November last year, ending almost 12 years of conservative rule.
He said "sorry" three times to the Stolen Generations and their families, saying the old policies were a stain on Australia's soul which would never be repeated.
About 100 members of the Stolen Generations were in parliament to hear the government apologize, some wiping away tears as Rudd spoke.
Howard, who lost his parliamentary seat last November, did not attend the celebrations, but the other four living former prime ministers did attend, including conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who governed from 1975 to 1983.
"I just wish the idea of an apology had been put before me," Fraser told Sky television.
Australia has about 460,000 indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up about 2 percent of the 21 million population. There are no aboriginal members in the national parliament.
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in Australia, with a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians, and far higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
Rudd promised to end the gap in life expectancy within a generation, and to work to end aboriginal inequality. He announced a plan on Wednesday to ensure all young aboriginal children are enrolled in pre-school.
Rudd also announced new plans to improve indigenous housing, and give aborigines constitutional recognition as the original owners of Australia.
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani