updated 12/13/2004 8:39:18 AM ET 2004-12-13T13:39:18

Oil giant Unocal Corp. has reached an agreement in principle to settle human rights lawsuits involving allegations of enslaved labor during a 1990s pipeline project in Southeast Asia, a company spokesman said.

The lawsuits maintained that El Segundo-based Unocal should be held liable for the alleged enslavement of villagers by soldiers during construction of a natural gas pipeline in the 1990s in Myanmar, an isolated country also known as Burma.

The full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had been scheduled to hear arguments on the case Monday afternoon in Pasadena, but the hearing was canceled at the request of both parties, Unocal spokesman Barry Lane said Sunday night.

Human rights lawyers representing 14 anonymous villagers also alleged in the lawsuits that Myanmar soldiers murdered a baby, raped women and girls and forced people out of their homes to clear the pipeline's route. The lawyers sued the company, claiming it should have known about the alleged abuses by Myanmar soldiers.

The lawsuits against the oil and gas giant have been considered a key test for human rights activists seeking to hold multinational corporations responsible in U.S. courts for alleged atrocities committed abroad.

Discussions to settle the lawsuits were ongoing and no details were being immediately released, Lane said.

Unocal has consistently denied that any human rights violations occurred during the construction of the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline.

Rick Herz, litigation director for EarthRights International, which represents the plaintiffs, declined to comment and Daniel Stormer, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, did not immediately return a telephone call. A telephone call made to Unocal lead attorney Daniel Petrocelli was not immediately returned.

The case was first filed in Los Angeles federal court in 1996. A federal judge dismissed it, prompting the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in state court.

The federal case, which relies on the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act that was originally enacted to prosecute pirates, was reinstated in 2002 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that certain types of cases involving violations of international law could be pursued in federal courts under the obscure act.

A Superior Court judge presiding over the state case had set a June 2005 trial date.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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