June 21, 2011 / 5:34 AM / 9 years ago

Colombia leader may expel foreign oil contractor

BOGOTA, June 20 (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday threatened to expel an unnamed foreign oil services contractor if the government verifies that the firm bowed to demands for extortion payments from an unidentified illegal armed group.

“We have received information that a contractor of an oil company apparently paid extortion money,” Santos said. “If we confirm that information ... then we’re going to get that company out of the country.”

“It is a foreign company,” he said of the contractor, which he declined to identify. He also did not name the company the contractor was working for.

In recent years, Colombia has been a magnet for foreign oil investment after U.S.-backed counterinsurgency operations cracked down on leftist guerrillas, making it less dangerous for oil companies to explore for and pump oil in far-flung parts of the country.

Santos did not say if the illegal armed group, said to be the contractor’s extortionists, was left-wing guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary groups. But traditionally left-wing rebels have carried out attacks on and extorted money from oil companies.

In early June three Chinese citizens who worked for a contracting firm of a foreign oil company were kidnapped by leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The police and army said the guerrillas hoped to reap a hefty ransom.

The ELN, Colombia’s No. 2 guerrilla group behind the FARC, had for decades bombed oil pipelines in its attacks against the government, but lately the FARC has stepped up explosive attacks against those installations, according to security force sources and Defense Ministry data.

Both rebel groups are still active in rural areas and occasionally stage splashy attacks in cities.

On Saturday night, a car bomb exploded in the southern city of Popayan, fatally wounding one person and injuring 16.

Police blamed it on the ELN. It was the first car bomb attack in an important Colombian city since since Aug. 12, when a car bomb was set off in the capital Bogota, wounding eight people, in what was widely seen as a FARC challenge to Santos, who had taken office five days earlier. (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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