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French cement-maker's murky ties to IS in Syria

© AFP/File / by Sophie DEVILLER | Lafarge has admitted to 'unacceptable practices' in its desperate bid to stay in war-torn Syria

PARIS (AFP) - 

New revelations from a probe into ties between the Islamic State group and Lafarge cast light on why the French cement giant was desperate to stay in Syria and the price it was prepared to pay.

To ensure protection of its staff, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) paid between $80,000 and $100,000 a month to various armed groups, including $20,000 to IS, according to a source close to the investigation.

The funds went through a middleman, Syrian tycoon Firas Tlass, who was a former minority shareholder in the cement works, Bruno Pescheux, who ran the plant from 2008 to 2014, told investigators.

Lafarge's bosses in Paris are suspected of having approved payments by LCS through "false accounting documents".

The year-long investigation has heard witnesses describe cooked books enabling oil purchases from IS, a laissez-passer allowing Lafarge trucks to circulate in the region and a planned meeting between IS and the top LCS security official.

Lafarge, which merged with the Swiss group Holcim in 2015, admitted it had resorted to "unacceptable practices" to keep LCS running in a war zone in 2013-14.

- 'No one told us to leave' -

Lafarge began operating in the northern Syrian town of Jalabiya in October 2010 at an investment of $680 million (580 million euros) -- the biggest outside the oil industry.

War broke out six months later and the European Union imposed an embargo on Syrian arms and oil.

In 2013, IS (then ISIL) and other armed groups took control of the oil-rich northern region where Lafarge was operating along with French oil giant Total and other multinationals.

But while the others pulled out, Lafarge decided to stay.

A source close to the probe said the group's former CEO Bruno Lafont told investigators in January that he believed "things were under control" and there was no reason to flee the war-torn country.

But former officials told investigators that a key reason for staying on was to hold the strategic advantage of being on the ground for Syria's reconstruction once the war ended.

The decision allegedly had the blessing of the French government then led by Socialist president Francois Hollande.

"The foreign ministry told us that we should hold on, that things would work out," former deputy COO Christian Herrault said. "We would see the French ambassador to Syria every six months and no one told us 'now you have to leave'."

IS issued the laissez-passers for Lafarge trucks in May 2014, according to a source close to the probe.

Investigators also suspect LCS of receiving its oil supplies from IS under the cover of fake consulting contracts starting in June 2013 at a time when IS controlled most of Syria's strategic reserves.

Frederic Jolibois, who ran the plant from July 2014, admitted: "The Syrian government was not in control of the refineries, so you bought (oil) from non-governmental organisations... completely illegally."

On June 29, 2014, the day IS proclaimed its "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, it also set up a meeting with the cement plant's security boss, investigators have heard.

- Locals pressured to stay -

Senior LCS staff had begun leaving Syria in the summer of 2012, with other Lafarge expatriates leaving in waves starting a few months later.

Investigators are examining whether LCS did all it could to ensure the security of its Syrian staff.

Jolibois claimed that staying on was a source of pride for the locals, saying: "For them it was an act of resistance."

But 11 former employees and the anti-corruption association Sherpa lodged a complaint last year stating that Syrian staff were pressured to stay or risk being sacked or having their pay withheld.

They said they had to fend for themselves when IS seized control of the cement works in September 2014.

Investigators interviewed three former employees in Paris last month.

Contacted Friday, Lafarge reiterated that it "regrets and condemns the unacceptable mistakes committed in Syria."

by Sophie DEVILLER

© 2017 AFP