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GENEVA/DAKAR (Reuters) - Switzerland said it had opened an investigation into Argor-Heraeus, one of the world's largest gold refiners, for suspected money laundering and complicity in war crimes.
The probe follows a criminal complaint filed by Swiss NGO TRIAL on November 1 which accused the refiner of processing close to three tons of gold sourced from an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The company denied the allegations and said it had already been cleared under investigations by the United Nations, the Swiss economics ministry (SECO) and financial markets regulator FINMA.
"The Swiss prosecutor's office has examined this complaint and decided to open a criminal procedure against the company in question for suspected money laundering in connection with a war crime and complicity in war crime," the Attorney General said in an emailed statement on Monday.
Under the Swiss legal system, authorities must examine a criminal complaint but are not obliged to open a probe.
TRIAL lawyer Benedict de Moerloose said Swiss law could lead to jail terms for anyone found guilty of money laundering and a fine of up to 5 million Swiss Francs ($5.49 million) for the company.
"(Argor-Heraeus) vigorously rejects all the charges for offences that had already been investigated by the U.N., SECO and control authority FINMA," the company said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
Congo's government, which is fighting M23 rebels near the Ugandan border, has faced a series of armed rebellions in its mineral-rich east since the end of a major war a decade ago.
Washington-based advocacy group Enough Project estimated in a report last month that approximately 12 tons of gold worth around $500 million is smuggled out of the country annually.
Gold is the most important commodity financing the rebel group M23, according to the report, after U.S. financial regulations helped block trade in tin, tungsten and tantalum.
According to TRIAL, the gold purchased by Argor was mined in concession area 40 by an armed group called FNI, once active in the Ituri region of eastern Congo, and sold via Uganda.
It was then bought by Argor and processed in Switzerland - a major refining hub where about two thirds of global volumes are processed - between 2004 and 2005, TRIAL said.
"Argos-Heraeus SA knew, or at the least should have assumed, that these raw materials were the proceeds of pillage, which is a war crime," TRIAL said on Monday.
($1 = 0.9110 Swiss francs)
Additional reporting by Clara Denina in London; Editing by David Evans