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Call for French ex-minister Fabius to face questions in Lafarge-IS probe

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | Then President of the French Constitutional council Laurent Fabius speaks in Paris, May 10, 2017.

The anti-corruption NGO Sherpa called Friday for former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to be questioned over payments made by cement maker Lafarge to the Islamic State group through a Syrian middleman.


"It is imperative to look into all those who might be responsible. The state should set an example, and if it is implicated in this affair then the justice system should hold it accountable,” Sherpa’s head of litigation, Marie-Laure Guislan, told France Info.

Sherpa is one of 12 civil plaintiffs in a case against Lafarge over payments it made to the Islamic State group and other armed militias to keep its factory in Jalabiya running between 2012 and 2014 when Syria’s civil war was at its highest point.

On Friday, Sherpa confirmed that it had asked investigators to question Fabius--whose term as foreign minister overlapped with Lafarge’s continued presence in Syria--and two former ambassadors to Syria, Eric Chevallier and Franck Gellet, over whether the French foreign ministry knew about the payments made by Lafarge and even coordinated with the multinational concerning its Syrian operations.

For two years after most French and international companies had left Syria, Lafarge kept open its cement plant in Jalabiya, 150 kilometres north of Aleppo. The IS group eventually attacked and took over the plant in September, 2014. Lafarge personnel, who accuse the company of not having had an evacuation plan in place, fled to safety just hours before the attack.

To ensure protection of its staff between 2013 and 2014, 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 year-old investigation. Payments were also allegedly made to ensure the passage of cement and other goods through checkpoints.

A senior Lafarge official told investigators the company had the blessing of the government of Socialist then-president Hollande to stay on in the war-torn country.

According to Dorothée Kellou, the journalist who originally broke the story for FRANCE 24 and Le Monde, a high ranking diplomat in the French foreign ministry told her that the ministry knew about Lafarge’s payments but preferred to ignore the situation. Kellou later speculated that perhaps the foreign ministry was using Lafarge’s position in Syria as a way to gather information about what was happening in the country.

"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'."

That version of facts is contested by the French Foreign Ministry, which told France Info that it had “warned Lafarge about the risks of staying in Syria.”

Lafarge's bosses in Paris, including Mr. Herrault, former CEO Bruno Lafont, and the Lafarge group’s head of security, Jean-Claude Veillard, are suspected of having approved payments by LCS to jihadist groups through the use of false accounting documents.

According to reporting done by Le Monde, the funds went through Firas Tlass, a Syrian businessman and son of one of Bashar al-Assad’s former ministers.

The investigators have heard from four former Syrian employees, one of whom described the pressure local staff came under to remain on the job long after expatriate staff had fled, a source close to the probe told AFP.

A total of 11 Syrian employees have joined the case as plaintiffs.

Lafarge, which is now part of the Franco-Swiss group LafargeHolcim, has admitted to "unacceptable mistakes committed in Syria". In March, the company acknowledged that it had “transferred funds to third parties in order to make arrangements with a certain number of armed groups, including some under international sanctions.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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