Lonrho Trading Co., a controversial London-based firm engaged in diverse African and Middle East interests, yesterday sued 29 U.S., British and other oil companies for allegedly supplying petroleum products to Rhodesia in violation of United Nations trading sanctions imposed on the white-ruled African country.
The suit, filed in High Court in London, said companies that participated in the alleged defiance of the trading ban included Shell, British petroleum, Mobil, Standard Oil of California and Texaco.
In a recent report on previous charges in this country that Mobil violated the trading ban, a Treasury Department agency said there was no evidence to support the allegations. However, the Treasury said it had been unable to study all documents needed in the investigation because of South African laws, which prohibited Mobil's subsidiary there from disclosing such information.
Lonrho, with vast mining and trading businesses, was branded in 1973 by former Prime Minister Edward Heath as "the unacceptable face of capitalism." Once the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Co., the $1.1 billion Lonrho was the subject of a British government report last year that accused the firm of bribery and violations of the embargo against Rhodesia.
Yesterday, Lonrho claimed that it had an exclusive contract to pipe oil into Rhodesia but halted such supplies when U.N. sanctions began, by cutting the pipeline from neighboring Mozambique.
Lonrho said it lost huge revenues while other companies moved in and provided Rhodesia with oil. British press reports quoted by Dow Jones News Service said Lonrho was seeking damages of about $170 million. The British government set up an inquiry into oil supplies to Rhodesia six weeks ago, following complaints by Lonrho chief executive Roland Rowland.
A spokesman for Mobil said yesterday that, based on "our understanding" of the lawsuit, it is not "a matter of serious concern." He repeated earlier denials that Mobil was engaged in such trading.
Texaco, Inc., noted that any operations in Southern Africa are conducted by Caltex Petroleum Co., which is owned 50 per cent by Texaco. A recent investigation inside South Africa, conducted by Caltex and outside lawyers, "found no evidence that Caltex was selling any petroleum products" to individuals, companies or the government in Rhodesia, a Texaco spokesman said.
At the same time, Texaco noted that under South African laws, Caltex cannot inquire of customers about what is done with purchased materials and "has no control over whether its purchasers use or resell such materials." Texaco and Caltex denied any liability in the Lonrho action.
Other oil companies declined comment or could not be contacted last night.