Sudanese file suit against Canadian oil group

By Edward Alden
Financial Times
Friday, March 22, 2002

Talisman Energy, the Canadian oil company operating in war-torn Sudan, asked the Khartoum government in 1999 to remove villagers from the vicinity of its oil properties, according to what is claimed to be a Sudanese government document cited in a lawsuit filed against the company.

The directive, which ordered the armed forces to "conduct cleaning up operations" in all villages in the area, is dated May 7 1999, two days before the Khartoum regime launched one of the largest military offensives of the brutal 20-year civil war.

The document will be considered by a
New York district court as part of a class action lawsuit brought against Talisman Energy and the government of Sudan by residents of southern Sudan who say they have been hurt by the government's military actions. The case is being considered under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue in US courts over violations of human rights and other international laws.

Human rights groups, as well as investigations by the Canadian government and United Nations missions, have said oil drilling in Sudan by foreign companies is exacerbating a war that has already claimed about 2m lives, mostly from war- related famine. Government troops and militia forces have destroyed villages and displaced about 200,000 people in the western upper
Nile region of Sudan where the oilfields are located, witnesses and human rights groups say. Rebel forces hostile to the Khartoum regime control most of the region near the oilfields.

Talisman has denied any complicity with the actions by government forces fighting the rebels, and points to its long record in bringing wells, hospitals and electricity to the region. The company, which was given a copy of the document this week by plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said its lawyers were still trying to determine its source and authenticity. But Barry Nelson, a Talisman spokesman, said: "We can emphatically say that the suggestions in the alleged memo run contrary to everything that Talisman practices and believes in
Sudan."

The controversial document, labelled "secret" and "very urgent", tells a different story, however. The message, sent from
Khartoum to "Petroleum Security Heglig", ordered various military actions to be carried out in the region "in accordance with the directive of the minister of energy and mines and fulfilling the request of the Canadian company". The Petroleum Security forces are under the jurisdiction of Sudan's energy ministry.

It said that to "ensure the security and wellbeing of employees and company property", the army would undertake cleaning up operations in every village from Heglig to Pariang. It further said that "it has been decided to eliminate Heglig village and the Unity state in Toor", both in the vicinity of the oil fields.

Two days after the order was issued, government forces launched a new offensive in the region using bombing raids, helicopter gunships and troops supported by armoured personnel carriers. The two-month campaign resulted in the destruction of many villages, including Toor, and led to a 50 per cent decline in population in the area, according to a Canadian government investigation in 2000.

Since the opening in 1999 of a 1,600-mile pipeline connecting
Sudan's oilfields to the Red Sea, the country's oil income has risen to an estimated $500m annually. That has allowed the Khartoum government to finance independently a war estimated to cost it $1m a day.

The lawsuit charges that Talisman entered into a "joint strategy" with the regime in
Khartoum whereby "government troops and allied militia engaged in an ethnic cleansing operation to execute, enslave or displace the non-Muslim, African Sudanese civilian population from areas that are near the pipeline or where Talisman wanted to drill".

Talisman has consistently refused to release any details of its security agreements with the
Khartoum government. "We don't discuss security matters for obvious reasons," said Mr Nelson of Talisman.

The company has said, however, that it faces serious security threats from rebel forces in the area that consider the oil installations a legitimate target in their fight against the
Khartoum regime.

Talisman has been under strong pressure from human rights groups to divest its 25 per cent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the foreign consortium exploiting the oil fields.

Talisman has said it is prepared to sell its
Sudan stake, but earlier this month told analysts that no deal was imminent.