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US, UN probe oil-for-food corruption
Updated: 2004-08-14 12:39

Two companies involved in the multibillion-dollar U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq said Friday they are cooperating with U.S. and U.N. investigations into alleged corruption, hoping to clear their names.

Swiss-based Cotecna Inspection S.A., which the United Nations hired in 1998 to authenticate that goods entering Iraq corresponded to a list of those approved for import, said it welcomes the opportunity "to set the record straight."

The Dutch company Saybolt International B.V., which monitored oil exports from Iraq, said it was "happy" to help with the investigations into its operations.

Critics accuse the companies of lax monitoring of oil and goods entering and leaving Iraq under the program, launched by the U.N. Security Council to help Iraqis cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Cotecna has also faced allegations it was awarded the contract because it employed Kojo Annan, the son of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In April, the Swiss firm put out a statement saying Kojo Annan worked on activities in Nigeria and Ghana and had nothing to do with Iraq; his father also denied any inside advantages.

In a statement issued Friday, Cotecna said it had been constrained in responding to allegations because of confidentiality agreements in its U.N. contract, but that it had sought and received waivers allowing it to provide information to Congress.

"The company is convinced that all investigating parties will conclude definitively that Cotecna performed its role according to the best professional and ethical practices in its industry," Cotecna spokesman Seth Goldschlager said in Paris.

John Denson, general counsel of Saybolt, said the company has already been providing information.

"We are in the active process of cooperating with the U.S. Congressional panels and any other government investigating authority, including the United Nations," he told The Associated Press. "We feel that we have not done anything wrong, and we are happy to cooperate and help any governmental investigating body understand that."

Under the oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and ended in November, Saddam's regime could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil — but a Security Council committee monitored the contracts.

Allegations of corruption surfaced in January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, which published a list of about 270 former government officials, activists, journalists and U.N. officials from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales under the U.N. program.

Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who chairs the House subcommittee investigating the oil-for-food program, said Friday that during his current Mideast trip he met with Al-Mada employees.

"They contend there is another list of 300 names, and we just have to ask the right people for it," he said in a telephone interview from Damascus, Syria.

Shays confirmed that Cotecna and Saybolt were cooperating with his probe, and said that while in Baghdad, he and his staff looked at some of the thousands of Iraqi documents related to the program.

Paul Volcker, head of a U.N.-funded independent probe of the oil-for-food program, said Monday Congress has launched five investigations, and that the Justice Department, U.S. Attorney's office in New York, Britain and Iraq are also investigating.

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