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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress on Thursday renewed a key provision of a trade program that encourages economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.

The legislation, passed by voice vote in both the House and the Senate, also renews the president's authority to apply import sanctions against Myanmar.

The measure extends for three years a provision of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act allowing duty-free access for African apparel made from third-country fabric. That provision would have expired at the end of September, causing disruption in orders from African factories. The bill also adds South Sudan to the list of the some 40 countries eligible under the trade act.

"AGOA and its third-country fabric provision are helping to build a strong middle class in Africa, lessening dependency on U.S. foreign aid and opening important new markets to American companies," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs.

Since it was enacted in 2000, the trade act has been at the center of U.S. efforts to promote trade and investment in Africa while opening new sources of material for U.S. producers.

American Apparel & Footwear Association President Kevin M. Burke said that with passage of the bill, "four million workers in the U.S. apparel and footwear industry can continue to rely on these programs to remain competitive in the global market."

The Myanmar provision renews import sanctions for one year. It leaves intact the administration's authority to waive or end the sanctions. The import restrictions are part of a 2003 act that limited economic relations with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, until it became more open and democratic.

"I encourage the Burmese government to continue to address the concerns that led to the passage of the law," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. "I also urge the Burmese government to vigorously pursue further reforms, economic growth and peace (and) inclusive governance that benefit all the Burmese people."

The Obama administration last month gave American companies permission to invest in Myanmar and work with its state oil and gas enterprise, a response to budding efforts by Myanmar's military rulers to loosen political controls and give more freedom to its opponents, including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The U.S. Campaign for Burma welcomed the vote to extend sanctions, saying that while some reforms have been undertaken, the bill "has sent a clear strong signal to Burma's ruling regime" that sanctions will remain in place until human rights abuses end and true national reconciliation is achieved.

Source: Associated Press