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Financial links LafargeHolcim office searched over Syria business

The French headquarters of LafargeHolcim in Paris, which where searched by police on Tuesday

(Keystone)

The Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim has confirmed that its Paris offices were searched on Tuesday by investigators seeking information on financial links to jihadist groups in Syria. 

“French investigators are in the process of investigating our offices,” a Lafarge spokeswoman told AFP, confirming a report 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 told AFP that Belgian police were conducting a similar search at the offices of one of Lafarge’s subsidiaries in Brussels. 

The news agency said that since June three French judges had been investigating reported money transfers by Lafarge to groups in Syria, including Islamic State, 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. 

In March, LafargeHolcim issued a press releaseexternal link responding to allegations made in numerous publications in 2016 about the company making deals with Syrian armed groups.  

An independent investigation supervised by its board’s finance and audit committee revealed the then Syrian branch of the then Lafarge company (before its merger with Holcim) had dealt with armed groups in 2013 before evacuating its factory in northern Syria, located 150 kilometres (95 miles) northeast of Aleppo in 2014. 

“It appears from the investigation that the local company provided funds to third parties to work out arrangements with a number of these armed groups, including sanctioned parties, in order to maintain operations and ensure safe passage of employees and supplies to and from the plant,” said the company press release.  

‘Errors in judgement’ 

However, the investigation only revealed that Lafarge Syria had paid a middleman to ensure the security of its plant. It failed to identify the armed groups that ultimately received Lafarge money.  

The cement firm claimed that its employees had acted in the “best interests” of the company but that the measures taken were “unacceptable” and showed “significant errors in judgement”. 

A further company statementexternal link in April added: “Findings also confirm that, although these measures were instigated by local and regional management, selected members of Group management were aware of circumstances indicating that violations of Lafarge’s established standards of business conduct had taken place.” 

The same month, the scandal triggered the departure of Eric Olsen, a former Lafarge executive who had led the group since it was created by the merger of Switzerland’s Holcim and France’s Lafarge in 2015. Olsen has denied knowledge or involvement in the affair. 

In November 2016, the firm rejected suggestions that its Syrian operations in 2013-2014 may have contributed to financing Islamic State militants. The statement was made in reply to a legal complaint reportedly filed by two human rights groups in Paris against Lafarge, saying some of its work in Syria may have made it complicit in financing Islamic State and in war crimes.

swissinfo.ch/sb

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