The lawsuit seeks damages for supporting terrorism, war crimes, wrongful death and torture with a value of $10m in punitive and $10m in compensatory damages for each of the victims.

Filed in Manhattan's federal court, the case is the latest of several complaints filed by Colombian victims against Chiquita in the United States this year.

Admission

The company has admitted paying off guerrilla groups, including the AUC, who are accused of carrying out massacres during Colombia's long-running guerrilla war before it began disarming in 2003.

The US government calls the AUC a terrorist organisation.

In March, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25m fine to settle a criminal complaint with the US justice department, which accused it of paying the AUC more than $1.7m from 1997 to 2004.

However, Reiter said that none of the money from that settlement is likely to reach the victims.

Carlos Holguin, the Colombian interior minister, said the US justice department agreement should not grant Chiquita immunity from further payments.

'Mischaracterisation'

Michael Mitchell, a spokesman for Chiquita, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, said the lawsuit "grossly mischaracterised the payments made by Chiquita in Colombia".

"The company was forced to make such payments to both left- and right-wing organisations to protect the lives of our employees at a time when kidnappings and murders were frequent," he said.

Lawyers said the amount sought in the lawsuit was based on a 2004 agreement, in which Libya admitted its role and paid up to $10m to each of the families of the 270 people killed in the 1988 terrorism bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.