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At the Nyala airport in Darfur, a Petronas fuel truck supplies fuel to an Antonov An-26 military aircraft from the Sudan Armed Forces on April 17, 2012. Researchers and human-rights groups say the fuelling of SAF aircraft by Petronas is a violation of the United Nations arms embargo on Darfur.THE GLOBE AND MAIL ARCHIVES

Malaysian oil and gas producer Petronas has confirmed that it provides fuel to Sudanese military aircraft in Darfur, despite a United Nations embargo, but it says it also supports humanitarian aid flights in the war-torn region.

Petronas, one of the biggest investors in Western Canada's energy boom with $36-billion in planned investments, is facing criticism from human rights groups for its business links to the Sudanese military, which often bombs civilians in Darfur.

The state-owned Malaysian company, which earlier had declined to comment, issued a statement on Friday in response to a Globe and Mail report on its Darfur connections. It said it rejects any suggestion that its human rights record in Darfur is "questionable."

Petronas confirmed that its Sudan subsidiary has been supplying aviation fuel at Nyala Airport in Darfur since 2007, but it said the fuel was primarily for civilian flights and humanitarian flights by the region's UN and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID). Its contract was recently renewed for another five years, it said.

The embargo was imposed by the UN Security Council in 2004 in an attempt to prevent Khartoum from dropping bombs and missiles on villages in Darfur, where the government is trying to crush a rebel uprising. The conflict has left an estimated 300,000 dead and 1.4 million homeless.

The supply of aviation fuel in Darfur for military purposes is a violation of that embargo, according to the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan, the monitoring body set up by the Security Council. Petronas said the Sudanese authorities sometimes take control of the Darfur airport and give directives to fuel suppliers, including directives to refuel Sudan's military aircraft, and Petronas feels legally obliged to comply. "The only alternative would be to cease operations altogether," it said, noting that this would also deny fuel to the humanitarian flights.

Alex Neve, secretary general of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International, rejected the company's arguments. "The fact that assisting UNAMID is commendable does not excuse or justify those embargo violations," he said in an e-mail on Friday. "Petronas must ensure that it is not drawn in or compelled in any way – directly or indirectly, frequently or occasionally – to breach the embargo by refuelling Sudanese military aircraft," he said. "Petronas must arrange its business in a way that will avoid that possibility."

Mike Lewis, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts, also disagreed with the Petronas explanation. "Supporting an international peacekeeping mission does not justify sustaining embargoed military equipment, just as supplying weapons to the peacekeepers could not be a justification for also supplying weapons to Darfur's rebel groups," he said.

He rejected the argument that the Petronas fuel supply to the UNAMID mission is irreplaceable. "It's worth noting also that UNAMID have their own fuel distribution tankers for other kinds of fuel used by the mission."

Canadian rights activists are calling for greater scrutiny of the human rights records of companies such as Petronas before they are allowed to invest in Canada.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister John Baird, asked whether the government is satisfied with the Petronas response, said: "The Minister has seen today's statement, and has asked officials to follow-up on their response." Earlier in the week, when asked about the alleged embargo violations by Petronas, the spokesman had said that "Canada expects that international sanctions, including those on Sudan, will be complied with."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who visited Malaysia earlier this month, said he views the Petronas investments in Canada "very positively" and is "very excited" by possible further Petronas investments.