Chiquita Brands International has been forced to deny that it sponsored terrorism in Colombia.

The US-based banana group said it "categorically denies" allegations made in a lawsuit that it gave financial assistance to paramilitary organisations accused of murdering over 140 people in Colombia.

A Chiquita spokesman said the company had yet to see the lawsuit, which was filed in the US yesterday (7 June) by relatives of the 144 people killed by terrorists in Colombia.

In March, Chiquita was hit with a US$25m fine after admitting that it paid Colombian terrorist groups protection money.

The spokesman told just-food today that the company had been forced to pay the terrorists to protect the lives of its employees in Colombia. He cited instances in the 1990s when left- and right-wing groups in Colombia had murdered Chiquita employees.

"As the security situation in the countryside continued to deteriorate - under a central government and military that, despite its best efforts, could not protect Colombia's citizens from these paramilitary groups - our company had been forced to make protection payments to safeguard our workforce," the Chiquita spokesman said.

"It is absolutely untrue for anyone to suggest that these payments were made for any other purpose."

He added: "This was a difficult situation for the company, and we had to protect the lives of our employees and the families, which were in danger. Chiquita has already been the victim of extortion in Colombia. We will not allow ourselves to become extortion victims in the US. We will defend any preposterous suit of this nature vigorously."