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U.S. court told Chevron paid forces in Nigeria clash

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Chevron Corp fed, housed and paid Nigerian military forces involved in a deadly clash with local residents occupying an oil platform more than a decade ago, a jury was told on Tuesday at a federal trial in which the oil company is accused of human rights abuses.

A Chevron employee watches as gasoline is unloaded from a tanker truck into underground storage tanks in Burbank, Calfiornia June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

The accusations stem from May 1998, when about 100 people occupied Chevron’s Parabe platform off the coast of West Africa for three days.

The case in San Francisco District Court was brought against Chevron by Larry Bowoto, one of the occupiers of the platform, under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The act, dating back to 1789, allows foreigners to sue over human rights abuses committed in their countries by a U.S. organization or someone acting on behalf of a U.S. organization.

In opening arguments, lawyer Dan Stormer, speaking for the plaintiffs, said the forces that landed on Parabe to retake the platform were on Chevron’s payroll and supervised by the company.

Parabe, nine miles off the coast, accounted for a fifth of Chevron’s daily crude oil output of 400,000 barrels.

Hostage-taking and ransom demands are a regular hazard for oil companies working in the impoverished Niger Delta, where residents say they do not benefit from the industry.

Stormer said two men died and many were injured in the clash between the protestors and armed forces.

The trial will decide if Chevron, based in San Ramon, California, is responsible for injuries suffered by villagers and one of the deaths.

People who occupied Parabe called it a peaceful protest by unarmed villagers who accused Chevron of polluting their water, causing the supply of fish, one of their main food sources, and vegetation to dwindle, and turning the village’s soil to acid.

Chevron’s lawyer Bob Mittelstaedt told jurors the case was “about the right and duty of a company to protect its workers” and that the protest was not a peaceful but a “hostile” one that put its workers’ lives at risk.

Chevron employees said the protesters were armed with long knives and “poured diesel on the barge and threatened to set it on fire,” Mittelstaedt said.

Stormer countered that a Chevron employee sent a fax to the U.S. embassy during the conflict saying “the villagers were unarmed.”

Mittelstaedt, while expressing sympathy for the families of those who were harmed, said the use of military support to break up the protest was “a decision any employee would want their company to make.”

The trial is due to resume on Wednesday.

Writing by Braden Reddall; Editing by Toni Reinhold