Relatives of people said to be murdered by paramilitary groups in Colombia on Thursday sued Chiquita Brands International Inc., accusing the banana company of funding terrorists.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Trenton and transferred to the Newark courthouse, seeks class-action status. It came four months after the Cincinnati-based Chiquita admitted it paid such groups $1.7 million in protection money over six years to protect its most profitable banana-growing operation.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of at least six alleged victims by EarthRights International, a human rights group, and seeks unspecified monetary damages for the families. It was filed in New Jersey because the company is incorporated in the state, EarthRights legal director Marco Simons said.

It is at least the third such lawsuit since Chiquita entered into the plea agreement with U.S. officials.

The group said, "Chiquita's involvement violates not only Colombian law and U.S. law, but also international law prohibiting crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and other abuses."

Company spokesman Michael Mitchell said he could not discuss specifics in the lawsuit, but added, "Suits of this nature are without merit, and we'll certainly defend ourselves vigorously."

Simons estimated that if granted class-action status, up to several thousand relatives of victims could be represented.

None of the current plaintiffs live in the United States, he said. Neither they nor the victims were identified in the lawsuit.

"There is still an incredible amount of danger for anyone who speaks up about the abuse they suffered," Simons said.

The company, one of the world's largest distributors of bananas and other fresh fruits and packaged salads, awaits sentencing on its March 19 guilty plea to one count of doing business with a terrorist organization. Its deal with prosecutors calls for a $25 million fine and does not identify the several senior executives who approved the illegal protection payments.

The agreement, in U.S. District Court in Washington, ended a lengthy Justice Department investigation into the company's financial dealings with right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels the U.S. government deems terrorist groups.

Prosecutors in that case said Chiquita agreed to pay about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials.

The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the AUC a terrorist group in September 2001.

In addition to paying the AUC, prosecutors have said, Chiquita made payments to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as control of the company's banana-growing area shifted.

Chiquita maintains it made the payments only to ensure the safety of its workers.

"These are payments that the company was forced to make to protect the lives and safety of our employees," Mitchell said. "We would categorically deny that the payments were made for any other purpose."

The payments were made by a Chiquita subsidiary, Banadex, which was sold in 2004.

Prosecutors in Colombia in March demanded that the United States extradite unnamed Chiquita executives. They cited a 2003 report by the Organization of American States that said a Banadex ship was used in November 2001 to bring 3,000 assault rifles and ammunition that the paramilitaries bought from arms dealers.

At the time, the paramilitaries were consolidating control of the Uraba banana region through massacres and assassinations.

Simons said Chiquita profited from the stability imposed by the violence.

Mitchell has said that Banadex changed its policies after the shipment.

In 2006, the company reported a loss of $95.9 million, or $2.28 per share, compared with a profit of $131.4 million, or $2.92 per share, in 2005. Revenue increased to $4.5 billion compared with $3.9 billion in 2005.

EarthRights International is a Washington-based nonprofit which said its members include human rights lawyers.