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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 23:33 GMT
Chiquita admits paying fighters
United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) - file picture
Chiquita said it made "protection" payments after threats to staff
US banana company Chiquita Brands International has said it will plead guilty to a count of doing business with a paramilitary group in Colombia.

The firm has agreed to pay a court settlement of $25m (13m) to resolve an inquiry by the US justice department.

Prosecutors said Chiquita paid about $1.7m between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) in return for "protection".

Chiquita says it was only motivated by the desire to safeguard its employees.

The AUC, which is listed by the US and EU as a terrorist organisation, has carried out massacres and assassinations, although it is now engaged in a peace process.

Prosecutors say Chiquita also made payments to Colombia's main left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The company's former Colombian subsidiary operated in areas where there was a strong presence of both armed groups.

'Staff safety'

Chiquita, which has its headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, has said it will pay the $25m fine as part of the settlement with the Department of Justice.

Banana saplings (file picture)
Chiquita has since sold its Colombian banana operations

"The agreement reached with the DOJ today is in the best interests of the company," Chiquita chief executive Fernando Aguirre said in a statement.

"The payments made by the company were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees."

A three-year inquiry by US investigators began after Chiquita approached the Justice Department in 2003 to say its branch in Colombia had been making the payments after workers were threatened.

Senior executives within the firm were aware of the situation, according to court documents seen by the Associated Press news agency.

Chiquita has since sold the Colombian arm of its business.

Thousands of Colombians have died in four decades of conflict involving the Farc, the AUC and other groups.

Paramilitaries from the AUC declared, but have not entirely observed, a ceasefire in 2002 and thousands have handed in their weapons since 2004.

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