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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Chiquita sued over Colombia role
Chiquita banana plant and worker
Chiquita's says its workers were being threatened by fighters
US banana company Chiquita Brands has been sued by the relatives of people killed by a paramilitary group the firm has admitted to doing business with.

Earlier this year, Chiquita said it paid the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) about $1.7m (860,000) for the "protection" of its workers.

The AUC is a US designated-terrorist group and Chiquita agreed to pay $25m to end a Justice Department probe.

Chiquita traces its roots back to 1870 and is one of the largest banana firms.

As well as Colombia, the main banana exporting nations are Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Philippines.

Employees' lives

US investigators began a three-year investigation of Chiquita after the company admitted to them that it had been making the payments to the AUC after workers were threatened.

Colombia has been beset by four decades of conflict that has involved the AUC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), and other groups, and in which thousands of Colombians have died.

Lawyers said that they were suing Chiquita for damages on behalf of 144 people who were killed by either the AUC or Farc.

United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) - file picture
Chiquita said it made "protection" payments after threats to staff

"This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history," said Terry Collingsworth, the relatives' lead lawyer.

"Putting Chiquita on trial for hundreds, or even thousands of murders could put them out of business," he said.

Chiquita has since sold the Colombian arm of its business.

"The company was forced to make payments to both left and right-wing paramilitary organizations to protect the lives of our employees," said Mike Mitchell, a spokesman for Chiquita.

"It is absolutely untrue for anyone to suggest the payments were made for any other purpose," he said.

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