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Obama signs land claims legislation

Barack Obama has signed a landmark law that will pay American Indians and black farmers 4.6 billion dollars (£2.9 billion) to deal with claims of government mistreatment going back decades.

The US president had promised during his election campaign to work towards resolving disputes over the government's past discrimination against minorities.

The measure he signed settles a pair of long-standing class-action lawsuits and four disputes over Native American water rights in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana.

At a signing ceremony at the White House the president declared: "It's finally time to make things right."

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Montana, the lead plaintiff in the Indian case, called the signing ceremony "breathtaking", adding that she did not expect it to happen in her lifetime.

She filed the action nearly 15 years ago and led efforts to reach the £2.1 billion settlement a year ago and then push it through the House of Representatives and the Senate.

At least 300,000 Native Americans say they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights. The plaintiffs will share the settlement.

Ms Cobell said she was in her car in Montana when she learned the Senate had approved the measure last month. "I pulled over and I cried," she said, adding that the day was "historic".

Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln used similar language to describe the black farmers' case, which marks the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999.

The case, which involves allegations of widespread discrimination by Agriculture Department offices in awarding loans and other aid, is named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.

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