Home | News    Tuesday 25 October 2005

Talisman allegedly played a part in S. Sudan war

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Sudanese army, Talisman closely linked, lawsuit alleges
Canadian oil firm calls charges false and ’grossly misleading’

Oct 22, 2005 (OTTAWA) — An oil venture co-owned by Talisman Energy Inc. helped "command the military" protecting its Sudanese facilities at the same time as troops were launching bomb raids on villages from the site, according to documents filed in court this year in a lawsuit against the Calgary firm.

The note is one of dozens of new allegations — many based on company documents — that have recently been made public in the four-year-long suit filed in a New York court against Talisman.

The lawsuit, filed under the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act, contends Talisman colluded with the government in genocide and war crimes during the country’s bitter war between the Islamic government and mostly non-Muslim rebels in the south.

The firm is under a judge’s orders not to discuss the case, but in a court rebuttal of the new allegations obtained by the Citizen, it calls the charges false and "grossly misleading."

From 1998 until 2002, Talisman owned a 25-per-cent stake in the oil venture, which quickly became engulfed in controversy as the decades-long civil war raged around the oilfields.

About two million people are estimated to have died in the civil war that erupted in 1983.

More than four million are believed to to have been displaced by the conflict.

Among the new documents filed by the plaintiffs are:

- A company memo that says the security manager for the oil consortium sat on a top-level government council "to command the military" in its primary role of defending the oilfields. The memo notes that the security chief had "direct access" to members of the council, which included Sudan’s minister of defence. The memo dates the unofficial arrangement back to April 1999 — a month before another company report says bombing raids from the oil venture’s airfields began.

While it notes that "there appears to be close collaboration between (the venture’s) security department and the military," the memo does not say the consortium had any knowledge of planned raids, and instead lists community-development projects conducted by the forces.

- A 2000 report by Talisman’s security adviser, Mark Reading, that found Sudanese troops launched bombing raids from the consortium’s airstrips for six months in 1999 before Talisman objected. The report also noted that cargo planes fitted with bombs were "frequent visitors" to its Heglig airstrip from June 1999 on, with attacks escalating into "round-the-clock bombing" by October.

The company told a Canadian government probe in 2000 that the only attacks occurred in November, and that it had them halted immediately.

In its court statement, Talisman strongly disputes that the attacks were "routine," adding that the few raids that did occur targeted armed rebels, not civilians. It also argues that it only heard rumours of raids in the summer; when these were confirmed in November, it strenuously objected, forcing the government to stop.

- A letter to the company from its former human-rights consultant, claiming Talisman considered paying for a new military airfield "that would be out of sight of journalists and other unsympathetic visitors." The company has said the consultant is a disgruntled former employee.

- A 2005 deposition from former Talisman manager Ralph Capeling confirming the company discussed building another airfield for the Sudanese military "to get them away" from the oil venture.

- A letter from a Sudanese general ordering troops to "clean up all the villages and pockets of the rebels" in one area, noting that "oil companies will avail some cash through ministry of energy and mining." Talisman bought in to the venture three months after the letter.

Filed under court seal in May, the documents were made public earlier this month.

Evidence filed in the case also includes a May 1999 memo attributed to a Sudanese security force, headlined "in the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Magnificent." Citing "the request of the Canadian company," it orders armed forces stationed at the oil venture’s airfield to "conduct cleaning up operations in all villages from Heglig to Pariang," adding, "You must participate in this moral objective."

The company has in the past questioned the note’s authenticity and pointed out that the memo does not specifically name Talisman. "We can emphatically say that the suggestions in the alleged memo run contrary to everything that Talisman practices," spokesman Barry Nelson said when the memo was released in 2002.

Within days of the memo, government troops launched a two-month offensive on rebels that the Canadian probe said was "characterized by bombing runs and helicopter gunships flying low enough to kill people."

In its court rebuttal of the latest allegations, Talisman vehemently denies it knew of any ethnic-cleansing campaigns during its involvement in the venture.

In fact, it said, there was no genocidal campaign in southern Sudan at all, noting that numerous probes, including the 2000 Canadian report, do not cite genocide as a factor.

In previous media coverage, Talisman has denied people were displaced around the oilfields, and referred to satellite images suggesting there was no depopulation while the company was involved.

One company report, filed in court by the plaintiffs, observes that the population increased in some areas, partly due to community-development actions by Talisman, which built a hospital, schools and medical clinics in the area.

Talisman has long argued it was a force for good in the area, where its hospital, at peak times, served more than 200 people. It also refurbished waterworks in 28 villages, provided artificial limbs for 2,000 amputees in Khartoum, and funded 15,000 vaccinations.

Talisman and its partners "assisted with life-saving emergency aid during crises involving displaced people, drawing civilians into the concession area," its court statement says.

The plaintiffs in the suit — the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and several Sudanese citizens — claim the military used the oil venture’s airstrips to bomb 142 villages, killing more than 1,500 people between 1999 and 2002.

In its court rebuttal, Talisman calls this a "baseless assertion."

It does acknowledge the government conducted air raids on villages, but argues the vast majority of the attacks targeted rebel-held areas, and so were not aimed specifically at civilians.

Talisman also says it will be almost impossible to show that the alleged victims of the violence in that area were killed in military raids, because the area was also fraught with clashes between tribes and rival rebel groups at the time.

It points out that the conflict between the Sudanese government and rebels ranged into areas well outside its concessions, and that there were other airfields troops could have used.

It does acknowledge Sudanese government troops used the oil venture’s airfields for some raids in 1999, but strongly denies these were "routine," or that Talisman knowingly allowed them.

It points out that the airfields, while they were operated and maintained by the oil venture, belonged to the Sudanese government.

Most importantly, the company stresses it repeatedly and strenuously objected to the raids once it found out about them, and insists the airfields were "clean" after it complained to the Sudanese government in November 1999.

The bombers "were removed never to return again" during the company’s involvement, the firm said in its rebuttal.

A company report by Talisman security adviser Mark Reading, filed by the plaintiffs, paints a chilling picture of the 1999 attacks.

In the fall of 1999, "there were up to three bombers using the (Heglig) airstrip at any one time," he wrote in June 2000, noting that on his 1999 trip to the airstrip in he saw "bombs, cluster bombs (and) gunships" on the tarmac.

"In October at the peak of the bombing they were flying around the clock."

Mr. Reading reported that there was no question the military was using the oil venture’s airstrips, fuel and air-traffic control.

He noted that the cash-strapped Sudanese military sometimes loaded homemade bombs into cargo planes and "literally kicked (them) out the back door.

"These bombing runs are extremely terrifying to the people on the ground because they can hear what is trying to kill them but cannot see it. A lot of locals refer to this as ’whispering death’."

He also notes the crude bombers often hit "schools, hospitals and a whole manner of targets" by mistake.

According to his report, the bombing campaigns had been going on for six months before Talisman’s Calgary office was notified in November 1999.

The company objected strenuously, and "the airstrips have been clean ever since," Mr. Reading wrote, adding "in hindsight maybe (we) should have acted quicker."

However, he concludes "the bottom line is that if nothing had been done by Talisman, they would be using the airstrip to this day."

But other documents recently filed in court by the plaintiffs suggest the military continued to use the oil venture’s airstrips after 1999.

One memo dated November 2000 shows photos of gunships at the venture’s Heglig airstrip. Addressed to company security adviser, Mark Dingley, the note says, "please note the ground crew are currently re-arming the helicopters ... Of particular disturbance is the fact that they are re-arming at all."

In 2001, rebels attacked the company’s Heglig facility, prompting Talisman to tell the government it could once again station gunships on the airfields — but it repeatedly stressed the craft must be used only "for defensive purposes."

But a letter to the company from Ian Taylor, a former human-rights consultant for Talisman, and filed by the plaintiffs, says that in April 2001 he saw army bombers taking off from the airfield daily, and reloading with rockets and bullets when they returned.

He claimed the sudden surge of military activity on the airfields came immediately after he was told the operation was about to expand to the south.

He resigned from his job as manager of the company’s community development in Sudan, claiming the company had been using him to whitewash its activities in Sudan.

Talisman does not comment directly on Mr. Taylor’s allegations in its recent court statement. However, in the past it has dismissed him as a former employee with a grudge, pointing out that Mr. Taylor disputed his severance package.

It has acknowledged, however, that government troops did not always respect its ban on launching offensive activities from oil facilities.

In February 2002, a government gunship attacked the settlement of Bieh, where the UN World Food Program was conducting a food drop, killing 24.

The next month, Mr. Reading wrote that "aircraft at Unity Airstrip are likely to have been responsible."

Talisman subsequently expressed outrage at the attacks to the government of Sudan.

The company has told the court rebels were active in the area, which was outside the oil concession, and that the airstrike was "likely a mistake."

But a report from Mr. Reading to his superiors says information from "credible sources ... indicate that in fact it was deliberate."

The government of Canada has twice asked the U.S. government to stop the lawsuit, arguing that it would create "a ’chilling effect’ on Canadian firms engaging in Sudan."

It also objected to the application of American law to the overseas activities of a Canadian company.

The new allegations in the case, which is expected to go to trial in January 2007, come in the same month as the Canadian government turned down a parliamentary panel’s recommendation that it take steps to ensure Canadian companies are held legally accountable for upholding human rights in their operations overseas.

(The Ottawa Citizen)

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