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Canada: Oil Company Targeted for Ties to Sudanese Military

by Mark BourrieInter Press Service
February 7th, 2000

OTTAWA, CANADA -- An oil company headquartered in Alberta, Canada, is the target of a divestment campaign aimed at forcing the company to stop its partnership with the Sudanese government in the exploitation of oil fields in the war-torn southern region of Sudan.

Talisman Energy of Calgary, Alberta, Canada's largest independent oil exploration firm, is under heavy fire for its 25% interest in the Greater Nile Oil Project, currently pumping about 155,000 barrels of oil per day in the African country.

Critics of the company say that it is actively involved in Sudan's war Against its Christian minority. They have launched an assault on the company's share prices by successfully lobbying North American pension funds to sell their stake in the company.

A civilian airstrip in Sudan's southern oilfields is being used to transport government troops and equipment to Talisman Energy's controversial oil installations there, the company's chief executive has revealed.

Jim Buckee, CEO of Talisman, made the disclosure in a personal letter to John Harker, a Canadian envoy who visited the region last month on a fact-finding mission for the Canadian government.

Harker returned from Sudan last week sharply critical of what he said are Talisman's close ties with the Sudanese government and its armed forces.

Last week, the divestment campaign against Talisman Energy gained momentum as one U.S. pension group dropped its stake and the state of New Jersey confirmed it is considering doing the same with its 680,000 shares.

Sudan has been torn for decades by civil war that has killed or displaced millions of citizens.

Officials from the California Public Employees' Retirement System said last week that its entire position, more than 200,000 shares of Talisman, were sold as of Dec. 31.

New Jersey, which holds 680,000 shares of Talisman in its investment portfolio, is seriously considering divesting.

"We might very well end up backing out of this investment," Pete McDonough, a spokesman for Christine Todd Whitman, the governor, told the Bergen County Record. "The controversy is not going to go away."

Last month, TIAA-CREF, a college teachers' fund, sold out of Talisman, where it once owned 261,000 shares. It followed the lead of the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund which dumped its 100,000 shares in November.

Stephen Calderwood, a Calgary analyst with Salman Partners Inc., said the divestment campaign has caused Talisman's shares to fall 29% in the past year. Buckee's admission about the Sudanese military's use of the airstrip refutes the firm's earlier denials that it had no knowledge of how Khartoum was using the airfield, and that it vigorously opposed any use of the strip by the military.

"I've heard from Dr. Buckee on more than one occasion that these oilfields needed protection and that the protection was being provided through the use of the airstrip by the government of Sudan," Harker said.

"He has said in a letter and in conversation that the airfield was being used to provide defensive and logistical support to those operations."

In November, a UN report found Sudan's government had used scorched-earth tactics in order to clear a 100-kilometre zone around the oilfields, using soldiers, bombs and helicopter gunships.

And relief workers in the region fear revenues from the project will help Fund the Muslim-led government's war against Christians in the south, where aid workers have reported burned-out villages, starvation and the mass movement of refugees to the cover of mountain areas.

Use of the strip came into question after Harker found evidence it was being used by military helicopters and the government's Russian-made Antonov cargo planes. Antonovs are sometimes used as bombers by the Sudanese military. Harker fears the flights may be part of the government's 44-year- old war against rebels in the south, which in recent years has seen civilians near the oilfields killed, maimed and driven from their villages.

The Canadian envoy immediately relayed his information to Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, who in turn complained to Sudan's charge d'affaires in Ottawa. The minister also sent a letter of protest to Omar Bashir, the Sudanese president.

Axworthy had originally backed Talisman on the subject of the airstrip. He Said the company knew of the flights but did not know their purpose, adding that Talisman too had complained to Khartoum.

Jackie Sheppard, a spokeswoman for Talisman, told a Toronto-based newspaper that employees had spotted aircraft using the strip. But company officials "don't really know what they were doing," she said.

The revelation that Khartoum is in fact using the strip to land armed protection for the oil rigs raises significant questions about Talisman's relationship with the government, say opponents of the firm's presence in the area.

While Buckee stressed in his letter to Harker that the strip is being used purely for defensive purposes, few critics now believe Khartoum is observing its pledge to refrain from using oil operations as a cover for war manoeuvres.

"Given the intensity of the fighting in western Upper Nile, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that [Sudan] would confine itself merely to defending an airstrip that offers such significant offensive potential," said Eric Reeves, a U.S. college professor who has led the divestment campaign to drive down Talisman's stock price.

"Besides, it is both unwise and immoral to put a civilian airstrip on the list of military targets for the southern opposition forces."

In a conference call with Canadian reporters, a spokesman for the Sudanese government denied the strip was being used for military purposes, though he did acknowledge the military was protecting the oilfields.

"All operations in the Heglig area need protection and there are some security troops there in order to protect the oilfields and the personnel," Ghazi Salahuddin, the Sudanese minister of culture and information, said from Sudan.

"But we don't need such airstrips. This war has been going on for the past 44 years and we don't need a small airstrip that was built only two years ago for the oil fields."

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