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MIAMI, March 12 (Reuters) - U.S.-based Chiquita Brands International Inc CQB.N has been hit with a lawsuit in federal court in Miami over the killings of five U.S. missionaries by Marxist-led rebels in Colombia in the 1990s.
The lawsuit is the latest legal challenge faced by Chiquita over its operations in Colombia. It acknowledged last year that it had made payments to both left and right-wing militias, contending that the money was aimed at protecting Chiquita employees at a time when kidnappings and murders were frequent in the Andean country’s northern banana-growing region.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Tuesday, says the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas abducted the five and killed them after their Florida-based New Tribes Mission group failed to pay a ransom sought by the rebels.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages on behalf of the victims’ families, alleges that Chiquita’s payments to the FARC were a contributing factor in the killings because they helped finance the group’s operations at the time they occurred.
The lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, identifies the American victims as Mark Rich, David Mankins, Richard Lee Teneoff, Stephen Welsh and Timothy Van Dyke.
Chiquita "knew or consciously avoided knowing that the FARC was a terrorist organization and that it kidnapped, killed and terrorized thousands of people in Colombia," the lawsuit says.
"Defendant aided and abetted the murder of Plaintiffs’ relatives by providing material support to FARC in the form of large sums of money and weapons," it added.
A spokesman for Chiquita, based in Cincinnati, could not be reached for comment.
In a separate case, a civil lawsuit was filed in a New York federal court in November seeking $7.86 billion and accusing Chiquita of funding and arming right-wing paramilitary groups or death squads.
That lawsuit was filed on behalf of 393 victims and their families and was one of several complaints by Colombian victims against Chiquita in the United States last year.
Colombia’s leftist rebels and their paramilitary enemies have both been designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. government. (Reporting by Tom Brown; editing by Mohammad Zargham)