U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the World Conference Against Racism on Friday with a plea for delegates from around the world to look beyond their individual disputes and develop an international plan to combat prejudice. 

``If we leave here without agreement, we should give comfort to the worst elements in society,'' Annan told delegates from 166 countries and hundreds of human rights organizations. If an agreement is reached, ``we shall send a signal of hope to brave people who struggle against racism all over the world.''

The conference, taking place in the coastal city of Durban, has been plagued by controversy over efforts to condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and demands for reparations for slavery and colonialism.

``Let us rise above our disagreements. The wrangling has gone on for too long,'' Annan said.

About a dozen heads of state listened to Annan's speech, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Joseph Kabila of Congo and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was also at the conference.

However, the United States, Canada and Israel refused to send high-level delegations because of proposed wording in the conference's draft final document they considered anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.

Addressing the controversy, Annan said Jewish suffering during the Holocaust understandably made Jews sensitive to accusations of racism, especially when they coincide with the killing of innocent Jewish civilians.

``Yet we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them — displacement, occupation, blockade, and now extra-judicial killings — should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them,'' Annan said to a wave of applause.

However, the conference's aim should not be to throw out accusations, but to secure a commitment from every country to draw up a national plan to combat racism, he said.

``Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism and discrimination to address,'' he said.

President Thabo Mbeki said oppressed people around the world had high hopes for the conference and urged the delegates to recognize the effects of slavery and colonialism.

``Our common humanity dictates that as we rise against apartheid racism, so we must combine to defeat the consequences of slavery, colonialism and racism, which, to this day, continue to define the lives of billions of people who are brown and black, as lives of hopelessness,'' he said.

About 10,000 demonstrators, many protesting the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the slow pace of land redistribution in South Africa, marched through the streets of Durban as the conference opened.

Some protesters carried Palestinian flags and banners calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal and Israel an apartheid state.

``It is overwhelming, because (what) we are seeing today, it is not just classic solidarity, but lots of emotions. They feel the Palestinian cause,'' said Azmi Bishara, an Arab Israeli lawmaker walking at the front of the march.

Many of the protesters were South African Muslims and landless blacks, however they were joined by smaller groups protesting the plight of migrant workers, the crushing debt in the developing world and the suffering of the Dalit, India's untouchable caste.

Arab countries have lobbied hard for a final declaration by the conference comparing Israel with apartheid-era South Africa. They have already agreed to drop language equating Zionism — the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state — with racism, said Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights who is secretary-general of the conference, which runs through Sept. 7.

Jewish groups attending a parallel forum for non-governmental organizations complained Thursday they were being harassed and discriminated against. They were forced to cut short a news conference denouncing anti-Semitism at the forum after Arab activists disrupted it with shouting and singing.