February 20, 2015 / 1:52 AM / in 3 years

Colombia issues arrest warrants in probe of bribes paid to rebels

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's Attorney General's office has issued five arrest warrants as part of an investigation into whether bribes were paid by Italian construction company SICIM to Marxist rebels to guarantee the security of its employees, an official said on Thursday.

The warrants were issued for two SICIM workers and three members of guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN), an official from the Attorney General's office, who was not authorized to speak on the subject, told Reuters.

SICIM workers Roberto Jorge Rigoni from Argentina and Francisco Elizondo from Spain face charges of financing terrorism, rebellion and extortion, the official said. It is unclear if the two remain in Colombia.

SICIM is headquartered in Italy and has subsidiaries in Africa, Europe and in North and South America. It took part in the first phase of construction of the Bicentenario oil pipeline, which has a 110,000-barrel daily capacity to transport crude.

According to evidence gathered by the Attorney General's office, including recordings of phone calls between guerrilla members and SICIM directors, the company paid protection money while operating in the northeastern Arauca and Casanare regions.

Construction on the Bicentenario started in 2011 and the pipeline began operation in 2013. The first phase of the project which SICIM built, a 230-km (143-mile) section of the pipeline, cost around $1 billion (659 million pounds).

Staff at SICIM's offices in Colombia and Italy could not immediately be reached for comment.

President Juan Manuel Santos has threatened in the past to expel from Colombia companies found to be paying extortion to the guerrillas.

The government is seeking peace talks with the ELN. It is currently negotiating an end to a five-decade conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Investment in Colombia's oil and mining sectors has shot up in recent years, after a U.S.-backed military offensive lasting more than a decade drove rebel groups deeper into rural areas.

Even so, the rebels have intensified attacks on oil infrastructure such as pipelines over the last year.

Extortion of companies was common in the past when rebel presence was heavier and continues to be a major funding source for the groups.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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