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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 17:29 GMT
Total to pay Burmese compensation
Burmese people waiting for a bus in Rangoon
Humanitarian groups say forced labour is rife in Burma
Oil giant Total is to compensate Burmese villagers who claimed they were used as forced labour during the building of a major gas pipeline.

The French firm is to offer 5.2m euros (3.5m; $6.1m) to villagers who alleged they were forced to work on the 600m project by the Burmese army.

Total denies it was aware that forced labour was directly or indirectly used in the project.

The deal, which ends a four-year legal battle, does not imply any liability.

Humanitarian aid

Eight Burmese villagers sued Total in 2002, claiming they were forced to work on the project against their will.

Total upholds denial of any involvement in forced labour and all accusations of this nature

They alleged that Total must have known that human rights violations would occur during the construction of the pipeline, jointly built by Total and US firm Unocal.

The 39-mile (65-km) pipeline connecting Thailand to the Andaman Sea was completed in the mid-1990s.

The compensation will be paid to the eight plaintiffs in the case and anyone else able to prove they were also used as forced labour in the area during construction work.

Total said most of the money would go towards improving housing, healthcare and education in the region.

It has already spent $12m on humanitarian aid for the 45,000 people living there, many of whom worked on the project.

Strong denial

In a statement, Total said it had always fought against forced labour but acknowledged it still was prevalent in Burma.

"Further to this agreement and for humanitarian reasons, Total has agreed to compensate the plaintiffs," it said.

It added: "Total upholds denial of any involvement in forced labour and all accusations of this nature."

Earlier this year, Unocal agreed to pay undisclosed compensation to residents of the region following allegations that Burmese soldiers guarding the pipeline project had committed rape and murder.

Unocal denied any knowledge of human rights abuses.

The United Nations has accused Burma's military government of failing to stamp out forced labour, saying it remains a "serious problem".

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