Sudanese President Umar Hasan al-Bashir has placed under his direct supervision a committee charged with ending abductions of women and children, giving it greater powers and providing it with better access to funding.
Bashir on Saturday issued a decree transferring the Committee for Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC), formed in 1999 under the justice minister, to his office, Reuters reported.
A full time committee chairman would be given "political, legal and executive powers" to arrest, investigate, and prosecute those involved in abductions, the news agency said.
Muhammad Ahmad Dirdiery, the charge d'affaires at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi, told IRIN on Tuesday that the CEACW was an internationally approved mechanism for addressing the problem of abductions. "This is a part of the government of Sudan's promise to see that this issue is addressed within the proposals of [former US] Senator Danforth," Dirdiery said.
An undertaking to end slavery was one of four confidence-building measures proposed by the US special peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, during a visit to the country in November. The other three proposals were on humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains; a cessation of bombing and artillery attacks on civilians; and the creation of zones of tranquillity and times of tranquillity in which humanitarian assistance can be offered.
The presidential decree also authorised the CEACW to access federal resources to help abducted women and children go home, where they would be rehabilitated, the BBC said.
The Khartoum government has repeatedly stated that no slavery is practised in Sudan, while admitting that there is a problem of some tribal militias abducting civilians. "This is a problem in parts of Sudan, especially in the war-zone, where some tribes take advantage. The children abducted are not necessarily from the south only. Some of them are from the north," Dirdiery said on Tuesday.
"Our recognition of the problem of abductions - and not slavery -in parts of Sudan is nothing new, and we are now stepping up efforts to fight it, because it is part of our responsibility as a government to do so," Dirdiery added.
Human rights and religious organisations have criticised the Sudanese government for allegedly allowing government and army militia forces to abduct women and children in the south.
The Zurich-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI) on 22 January claimed that, since 1995, it had "liberated" over 78,000 "black Sudanese slaves", through a programme in which CSI offers to buy individuals described as such from their alleged owners in order to set them free.
"Many more slaves are still believed to be in bondage, but estimates vary greatly. The civil representatives of the enslaved people of northern Bahr al-Ghazal believe that over 200,000 are currently in bondage, while government-appointed 'chiefs' in Khartoum.... give an estimate of approximately 14,000 'abductees' - the Sudanese government's euphemism for black slaves," CSI said in a statement.
However, Human Rights Watch has criticised such schemes, saying that buying back slaves creates a "real danger of fuelling a market in human beings".
CSI said it had launched a new programme to document the extent of slavery in Sudan.
"The new documentation project aims to enable governments, human rights organisations and the general public to understand better the extent, both quantitatively and qualitatively, of Sudan's revived slave trade," John Eibner, director of CSI's Slavery Research Unit, said in the statement.