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France opens inquiry into Lafarge deals with Syrian armed groups

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France launched a judicial inquiry into the Syrian activities of construction group LafargeHolcim, whose murky deals with armed groups in the war-torn country were exposed by French daily Le Monde, reported France 24.

The probe will look into the "financing of terrorist enterprises" and the endangering of lives, a judicial source said Tuesday. The source said one anti-terror judge and two financial judges will be in charge of the case.

A spokesperson for the company, which is based in France and Switzerland, said LafargeHolcim had not been contacted by prosecutors but would cooperate fully with any inquiry.

In April, its chief executive Eric Olsen said he would be stepping down after the company admitted it had paid armed groups to keep a factory operating in war-ravaged Syria. An independent internal inquiry by the firm found payments made to intermediaries for the Jalabiya plant in northern Syria were not in line with its policies.

The inquiry followed reports by French journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou, published by Le Monde and FRANCE 24, which uncovered the shady deals Lafarge made with an array of armed groups, including the Islamic State (IS) group, in order to keep the cement plant operating.

Kellou’s work was rewarded with the TRACE International Prize for Investigative Reporting, which recognises reporting that uncovers bribery and transparency in the business world.

The jury said the project “captured, with nuance and intelligence, the moral crisis that faces businesses caught in the desperate situation in Syria, and by extension, every war-torn region.”

It added: “This story, gathered with care and courage, was told with a smart mixture of tools -- video and print, social networking and graphics -- and ignited calls for reform. Outstanding work!”

Accepting the award in Washington, Kellou told FRANCE 24 she was delighted her work had been taken up by transparency NGO Sherpa, which filed a lawsuit in France against LafargeHolcim.

“[The report] had many consequences I had not expected,” she said, referring to the Sherpa lawsuit. “It helps holding multinationals accountable in a context of weak anti-bribery laws and corruption.”

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