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Chiquita faces new lawsuit, $1 billion damages sought

MIAMI (Reuters) - Nearly 250 Colombians who say they and relatives were victims of violence by Colombian right-wing paramilitaries filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking more than $1 billion in damages from the Chiquita banana company, which has admitted making payments to paramilitaries.

The lawsuit against the U.S.-based Chiquita Brands International Inc, was filed on behalf of 242 plaintiffs in a U.S. District Court in Florida. The plaintiffs were also seeking unspecified punitive damages from the court.

In their complaint, some allege that family members were killed by the right-wing paramilitary group AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, "as a result of Chiquita's support for the AUC and its operations."

Others allege they themselves were seriously injured by the AUC, which is accused of carrying out massacres during Colombia's long-running guerrilla war before it began disarming in 2003.

The lawsuit is the latest of several similar damages suits filed against Chiquita over its operations in Colombia.

In a March 2007 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million fine to settle a criminal complaint accusing it of paying the AUC more than $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004.

The U.S. government has declared the AUC a foreign terrorist organization, along with Colombian leftist rebels.

Chiquita acknowledged in 2007 it had made payments to both left- and right-wing militias. It said that the money was aimed at protecting Chiquita employees at a time when kidnappings and murders were frequent in the Andean country's northern banana-growing region.

"This lawsuit, and others like it, will hold Chiquita -- which had revenues in excess of $3.5 billion last year -- accountable to those victimized by its unlawful conduct," said Lee Wolosky, a partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP which is acting on behalf of the 242 plaintiffs.

Chiquita could not be reached for comment.

"Chiquita has already admitted to engaging in criminal conduct that violated federal law by making systematic financial payments to a foreign terrorist organization," Wolosky said.

"Yet it has refused to provide compensation to the victims of terrorist atrocities made possible by its regular, repeated and knowing financial support," added Wolosky, who is a former White House counterterrorism official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Robert MacMillan)

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