JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's government has denied any links to a tainted Iraq oil-for-food programme and dismissed a U.N. report's suggestion that domestic companies may have paid bribes for oil.
A United Nations report, released last week, said some 2,200 companies worldwide made illicit payments totalling $1.8 billion to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government under the U.N. oil-for-food programme.
It also suggested the former Iraqi government may have tried to influence politicians in several major countries by giving them favours in a bid to get U.N. sanctions lifted.
South African companies mentioned in the report include private company Imvume and Mocoh Services South Africa, which was linked to holding firm Mvelaphanda Group Ltd.
Imvume and Mvelaphanda are headed by Sandi Majali and Tokyo Sexwale respectively, both of whom have close links to the governing African National Congress. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing.
"I don't believe that there was any violation ... by South African companies," Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad said in comments carried by SAPA news agency late on Monday.
South Africa's foreign policy objectives in Iraq had nothing to do with the oil programme, and were aimed only at finding ways to end sanctions imposed on the country, he added.
The U.N. programme, which began in December 1996 and ended in 2003, allowed Iraq to sell oil for food, medicine and other essential goods. It was aimed at easing the impact of sanctions imposed in 1990 after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait.
South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance criticised the government's response on Tuesday, and demanded an explanation as to how the country became implicated in the scandal.
"This is an unconvincing, head-in-the-sand approach to a crisis that goes to the heart of the presidency," DA leader Tony Leon said in a statement.
The report provided strong evidence of "potentially unlawful dealings" by South African companies, and showed that government efforts to prevent war in Iraq were really to protect lucrative contracts held by ANC members, he said.