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Congo Wildlife Authority Presses Charges Against Soco

(Corrects spelling of minister’s name in seventh paragraph.)

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Congolese Wildlife Authority filed charges with the country’s attorney general against London-based Soco International Plc after its employees allegedly forced their way into Virunga National Park, the park’s director said.

Soco employees entered the park near the Democratic Republic of Congo’s border with Uganda accompanied by 12 Congolese soldiers on Feb. 14, director Emmanuel de Merode said by phone today. The company, which has rights to an oil exploration block that overlaps Virunga, was told in a letter from the wildlife authority in December that it couldn’t conduct oil exploration activities in the park.

“The forcible entry is blatantly false,” Soco’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer Roger Cagle said by phone yesterday from London when informed by Bloomberg of the possible charges. Cagle said Soco was with a provincial member of parliament and had permission to enter the park.

Soco has not been informed of the charges yet, Cagle said in a separate interview by phone today.

“We’re there as the guests of the government, not because we forced this on anyone,” he said. “We’re not going to do anything that’s against the will of the government.”

Muhindo Nzangi, the lawmaker accompanying Soco on the trip, had his phone turned off when called for comment. Nzangi and the wildlife authority have clashed over park management, with the authority accusing the parliamentarian of inciting violence against park employees in 2009, de Merode said.

Virunga Park

Exploration in the parts of Soco’s Block 5 that overlap with Virunga may contravene Congolese law, Environment Minister Jose Endundo told Bloomberg Feb. 15. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as Unesco, designated Virunga a World Heritage Site in 1979.

The park is about 800,000 hectares (1.98 million acres) and home to more than 20,000 hippopotamuses and endangered mountain gorillas. Since the mid-1990s, rebel groups and refugees have moved into parts of the reserve, clearing forest and killing wildlife.

Rebels attacked Soco’s convoy and a South African security official contracted by the company was kidnapped after leaving the park on Feb. 14. The contractor was released unharmed yesterday, according to Soco’s website.

The convoy entered the park to conduct an environmental assessment in an effort to receive permission to begin exploration, Cagle said yesterday.

The wildlife authority has asked the attorney general to authorize military police to intervene if Congolese soldiers help Soco enter the park without permission again, de Merode said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael J. Kavanagh in London at mkavanagh9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net

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