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GENEVA (Reuters) - Swiss-based commodities trader Trafigura has bought oil which the South Sudanese government claims was seized by Sudan, its northern neighbor and former civil war foe, industry sources told Reuters, and is now in a legal dispute over ownership.
The tanker of crude oil is one of three seized cargoes forming part of some $815 million in oil revenues that South Sudan's President Salva Kiir accused Sudan of "looting" and which the government in Khartoum said provided compensation for unpaid transit fees.
Landlocked, war-ravaged South Sudan must pump its oil to the Red Sea via a pipeline across Sudan to Port Sudan to earn oil revenues which account for 98 percent of the seven-month-old country's income.
Last month, South Sudan shut down its 350,000 barrels per day of production in an escalating row over the three cargoes. Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said in an interview on Friday tensions with South Sudan over oil transit payments could lead to war between the two countries.
Trafigura, the world's third largest oil trader, bought one cargo of the Nile Blend grade crude loaded aboard the Indian-flagged 'Ratna Shradha', industry sources familiar with the transaction said. The fate of the other two cargoes is unclear.
South Sudanese authorities said this vessel loaded 600,000 barrels of oil in Sudan provided by Khartoum-based oil producer Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company between January 19-20.
There is, however, no indication that GNPOC, led by China's CNPC, had a role in marketing the oil. Several CNPC officials in Beijing either declined to comment or declined any knowledge of the transaction.
In response to a request for information about Trafigura's involvement with this shipment, the firm said in an emailed statement last week:
"Like many oil companies, we have bought from time to time both Nile Blend and Dar Blend crude oil. In relation to our interests in recent shipments, given the ongoing political discussions with respect to Sudanese oil ownership, significant efforts have been made to confirm legal title, and that confirmation has been provided."
"The Government of Southern Sudan were asked to provide further information to support their claim to ownership of the oil in which Trafigura has an interest. Some information has been provided which we are reviewing," the statement said.
The Trafigura shipment loaded on 19-20 January, days before the South Sudan's justice ministry published a list of three vessels - Ratna Shradha, Sea Sky and Al Nouf - it said had been forced to load southern oil on orders from Khartoum.
Earlier on Jan 14. it stated that Sudan had loaded oil of Southern Sudanese origin on the 'Sea Sky'. Sudan confirmed a day before that it was holding two other ships with southern oil over unpaid fees. It did not say whether it intended to sell the oil, nor did it state the volumes, saying only that the oil would be used in its two refineries.
Oil and metals trading giant Trafigura, whose chairman Claude Dauphin was a protege of veteran oil trader Marc Rich, is well-known in commodity circles. The company has drawn international scrutiny twice in recent years: for oil trade with Iraq under the United Nations' oil-for-food program and the dumping of toxic oil waste in the Ivory Coast.
A Trafigura-chartered tanker was intercepted in the Caribbean in 2001 on suspicion of carrying illegal Iraqi crude. In a settlement, Trafigura agreed to pay a $5 million fine, but was not charged with smuggling and denied wrongdoing.
More recently, a tanker it chartered in 2006 dumped toxic waste in Ivory Coast. The government of Ivory Coast alleged that
16 died and thousands were made ill. Trafigura paid a $200 million settlement and the country's prosecutor declared there was no evidence of any illegality by Trafigura.
Trafigura declined to comment further when asked if the company had any concerns about the origins of the disputed Sudanese oil shipment before the decision to buy or load it.
Reuters has no independent confirmation to support South Sudan's claim that its oil was stolen. However, it is exceptional for Sudan to market its 115,000 barrels per day of production as this is normally processed in domestic refineries.
Sudan has not sold any other oil since July when South Sudan was established.
The Ratna Shradha was last seen on February 5 near Singapore and listed its destination as the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas, according to AIS Live ship tracking data on Reuters.
South Sudan's oil is typically sent east to Asian refineries.
South Sudan's justice ministry in the capital Juba has warned that any party purchasing these three cargoes or selling to another party may be liable to litigation.
A lawyer advising clients on energy sanctions said that third parties involved in dealing with any seized South Sudanese oil could be sued by Southern authorities and that a contract to buy the oil might not serve as a defense in a court of law.
"It's like having a dispute over whether the cost of the cloak room is one pound or two pounds and then they sell your coat. This is almost certainly illegal to sell the oil and any third party involved could risk civil liability," said the lawyer, who asked not to named.
The Ratna Shradha is owned by a Calcutta-based company called India Steamship. An official at the company, who did not wish to be identified, confirmed that Trafigura had loaded the crude oil onto the Ratna Shradha. He said he was not aware of any legal complications arising from the transaction.
The price of the oil sold to Trafigura is not known. But traders in the Middle East and Asia said that the disputed cargoes were offered from Port Sudan at discounts to official prices charged by South Sudan.
"We never comment about transactions in which we have an interest, other than to say that the pricing of any commodity deal is always determined by many factors including, for example, storage capacity onshore and availability of shipping capacity," Trafigura said in a statement on Monday.
At current international oil prices the 600,000 barrel load is worth around $70 million.
Interactive Sudan timeline: link.reuters.com/cex79r
Trafigura is not the only company that has been involved with the disputed oil shipments.
Middle East-based trader FAL Oil is managing the two other oil tankers that South Sudan claims were illegally seized and sold by Khartoum on the international oil market, the industry sources said and FAL Oil confirmed to Reuters.
The sources said that the other disputed shipments aboard the 'Al Nouf' and the 'Sea Sky' that loaded Dar Blend oil in mid-January have not yet found final buyers. AIS Live tracking data showed that one of the tankers, the Sea Sky, was anchored off the shore of Sudan on 5 February while the Al Nouf has not sent a satellite signal in recent weeks.
FAL Oil General Manager Mohamed Osman told Reuters last week: "We are managing the ships, but we are not the charterers. The cargo is not ours. But we can't disclose the charterer. At the moment we don't know what the charterer would like to do."
The company has been one of the largest independent oil and bunker traders in the Gulf, although it has scaled back trading operations in the past 18 months due to credit issues.
Earlier this month, U.S. authorities imposed sanctions on FAL Oil for links with the Iranian oil sector in an effort to increase pressure over Iran's nuclear program. FAL Oil says the sanctions are based on a misunderstanding and that it is working with the U.S. authorities to seek a quick lifting of the measures.
Global Witness, a campaigning group focusing on the abuse of wealth in resource-rich countries, condemned the involvement of FAl Oil in the Sudanese shipments.
"The company needs to come clean on its role in loading and transporting these disputed shipments. FAL should explain who they have been dealing with and where the money is," Global Witness director Gavin Hayman said in an emailed statement.
Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Dubai, Nidhi Verma in New Delhi, Jim Bai in Beijing, Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz in Khartoum; Editing by Peter Millership, Richard Mably