La­farge says be­ing searched over Syria busi­ness links

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION -

PARIS: French-Swiss ce­ment maker La­farge said Tues­day its of­fices were be­ing searched for in­for­ma­tion on fi­nan­cial links to mil­i­tant groups in Syria, in­clud­ing Daesh (ISIS).

“French in­ves­ti­ga­tors are in the process of in­ves­ti­gat­ing our of­fices,” a La­farge spokes­woman told AFP, con­firm­ing a re­port to that ef­fect by France In­ter ra­dio.

“We are co­op­er­at­ing fully with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, but we can­not make any fur­ther com­ment on this on­go­ing in­quiry,” she said.

A source close to the case said Bel­gian po­lice were con­duct­ing a sim­i­lar search at the of­fices of one of La­farge’s sub­sidiaries in Brus­sels.

Since June, three French judges have been in­ves­ti­gat­ing re­ported money trans­fers by La­farge to groups in Syria, in­clud­ing Daesh, to keep op­er­a­tions up and run­ning at its Jal­abiya ce­ment works in north­ern Syria in 2013 and 2014, de­spite the con­flict en­gulf­ing the coun­try.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is also seek­ing to de­ter­mine whether La­farge knew of any cor­re­spond­ing fi­nan­cial agree­ments and whether Syr­ian em­ploy­ees were put at risk given the pre­car­i­ous se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

La­farge clung on in Syria for two years af­ter most French com­pa­nies had left as Daesh made ma­jor ter­ri­to­rial gains, ex­tend­ing its in­flu­ence over vast swaths of the coun­try.

To en­sure pro­tec­tion of its staff be­tween 2013 and 2014, La­farge Ce­ment Syria paid be­tween $80,000 and $100,000 a month to var­i­ous armed groups, in­clud­ing $20,000 to Daesh, ac­cord­ing to a source close to the year-old in­ves­ti­ga­tion first re­vealed last year by Le Monde daily.

Then as now, there were in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions against Daesh and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, both U.N.-des­ig­nated ter­ror groups.

Weeks af­ter the story broke with Le Monde say­ing La­farge HQ in Paris knew of the re­ported ar­range­ments, the French trea­sury opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

La­farge, which in 2015 merged with Swiss coun­ter­part Hol­cim, has al­ready ad­mit­ted to “un­ac­cept­able mis­takes com­mit­ted in Syria.”

A re­port by the French na­tional cus­toms ju­di­cial depart­ment, seen by AFP, has con­cluded that the com­pany “made pay­ments to ji­hadi groups” to al­low the plant to stay on stream.

The re­port goes on to say that the firm val­i­dated the trans­ac­tions us­ing false ac­count­ing doc­u­ments.

Some fig­ures at La­farge have stated Paris backed the com­pany’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­tain a foothold in Syria, de­spite the war, in order to be at the front of the queue for fu­ture lu­cra­tive re­con­struc­tion con­tracts there.

A se­nior La­farge of­fi­cial told in­ves­ti­ga­tors the com­pany had the bless­ing of the gov­ern­ment of the pre­vi­ous So­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande to stay on dur­ing the fight­ing.

The CEO, Eric Olsen, re­signed in April 2017 af­ter the com­pany ac­knowl­edged deal­ings with un­spec­i­fied “sanc­tioned” groups.

The anti-cor­rup­tion as­so­ci­a­tion Sherpa, one of 12 civil plain­tiffs in the case, has called for for­mer French for­eign Min­is­ter Lau­rent Fabius to be ques­tioned over the pay­ment.

French ex­am­in­ing mag­is­trates have so far ques­tioned sev­eral Syr­ian for­mer em­ploy­ees of the fac­tory.

Af­ter pulling out in­ter­na­tional staff in 2012, the plant was fully evac­u­ated and stopped op­er­at­ing in Sept. 2014. The mil­i­tant group even­tu­ally took over the Jal­abiya plant later that month. –

The world’s largest ce­ment maker is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion over al­leged fi­nan­cial links with armed groups in Syria.

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