Lafarge says being searched over Syria business links
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.