RPT-Sierre Leone police open fire during anti-palm oil protest
* Frictions mount between landowners and investors
* Police chief says shots were intended as warning
By Tommy Trenchard
FREETOWN, Dec 10 (Reuters) - Police in Sierra Leone opened fire on Tuesday on an armed protest against the expansion of palm oil plantations operated by the international agro-investor Socfin Group, a police chief said.
The Luxembourg-registered company, part of the business empire of the French tycoon Vincent Bollore, has been embroiled since 2011 in a bitter feud between agricultural groups and local landowners in the Malen chiefdom.
Police Inspector General Francis Munu said a crowd armed with shotguns and machetes had tried to burn down a police station in the southern Pujehun province on Monday, prompting a police response.
"We tried to use tear gas but then we had to use bullets to repel them," he said.
"They came out of the bush after a ... meeting, kidnapping people, taking people's properties. They were opposed to (Socfin) extending (its operations)."
Munu said the bullets were fired as warning shots. But the head of an association of landowners affected by the Socfin deal said dozens had been injured and that one man had been shot in the neck.
"They opened fire on us just for fighting for our rights to the land," said Sima Mattia.
Residents say the $5 per acre ($12.50 per hectare) they receive for their land per year is not sufficient and argue they did not understand the lease agreement, or were coerced into signing.
Socfin's director, Gerben Haringsma, said on Tuesday the company had consulted every landowner and had the full support of the community. Socfin says it has provided extensive infrastructure projects and social services, as well as jobs.
Sierra Leone was devastated by civil war between 1991 and 2002. Since then, has succeeded in luring foreign investors in agriculture as well as resources such as iron ore and bauxite. Palm oil is the world's most important vegetable oil and is used to make margarine and soap.
The government has signed several large-scale land deals in recent years, including a $1.3 billion deal with China Hainan Rubber Industry Group earlier this year.
Addax Bioenergy, a Swiss biofuel company that has leased 14,300 hectares in Tonkolili district for the production of sugar cane, has faced similar criticisms, most recently in a report by the NGO Action Aid.
Addax Bioenergy said in a statement that it "refutes categorically the accusations made by ActionAid", adding that it had injected over $50 million into Sierra Leone's economy. (Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)