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Uncle Sam dips a diplomatic toe into South Africa's ''tribal homelands.''

In a small shift in foreign policy, the US is allowing its embassy staff in South Africa to visit the so-called ''tribal homelands,'' which aren't recognized by any country in the world. The US Embassy insists the policy change is not a prelude to diplomatic recognition of the territories. Rather, it is a move aimed at allowing US officials to take a closer look at conditions in the homelands. The shift may pave the way for more US assistance to the people of the territories - in education and self-help programs, for example.

But an embassy official says any direct contact with the nonrecognized governments of these homelands is still out of bounds.

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