Seven companies — Royal Dutch Shell PLC, a big Swiss freight company, four oil service companies and a U.S. shipping firm — have agreed to pay $236.5 million to settle criminal and civil charges that they bribed foreign officials, the government announced Thursday.

The companies were accused of paying customs officials in a dozen countries millions of dollars in exchange for favorable treatment in customs duties, imports and taxes. In addition, they allegedly also paid bribes to get phony documents enabling oil drilling rigs to be brought in to countries.

The companies agreed to pay $156.5 million in criminal fines to settle proceedings with the Justice Department, and about $80 million in civil fines and restitution to settle related charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

SEC officials said the agency's cases constituted its first "sweep" of a specific industry sector to crack down on public companies and third parties that are paying bribes abroad.

Big oil company Royal Dutch Shell of Britain and the Netherlands, along with an exploration subsidiary, agreed to relinquish about $18 million in profits and interest. In addition, Shell Nigerian Exploration and Production Co. Ltd. will pay a $30 million criminal fine.

In court documents filed in Houston, Panalpina World Transport (Holding) Ltd., of Basel, Switzerland, and its U.S. subsidiary agreed to criminal fines of almost $70.6 million. The company also will give up $11.3 million in profits to settle with the SEC. Panalpina acknowledged paying $27 million in bribes from 2002 to 2007 to officials of Angola, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia and Turkmenistan.

The oil service companies are Houston-based Pride International Inc., Swiss firm Noble Corp., and Transocean Inc. and GlobalSantaFe Corp., both based in the Cayman Islands. The shipping firm is New Orleans-based Tidewater Inc.

The other countries involved were said to be India, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Mexico and Venezuela.

The settlements marked the latest action in the government's efforts to combat overseas corruption in international business. The bribery charges were brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it unlawful to bribe foreign government officials or company executives to secure or retain business. A number of U.S. and foreign companies have been charged with violating the law in recent years.

"Bribing customs officials is not only illegal but also bad for business, as the coordinated efforts of law enforcement increase the risk of detection every day," SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami said in a statement. "These companies resorted to lucrative arrangements behind the scenes to obtain phony paperwork and special favors, and they landed themselves squarely in investigators' crosshairs."

Also in the new settlements:

— Pride International agreed to pay about $23.5 million in restitution; the company and its Pride Forasol subsidiary are paying a $32.6 million criminal fine.

— Tidewater: around $8 million in restitution and a $217,000 civil fine. Subsidiary Tidewater Marine International: a $7.3 million criminal fine.

— Transocean: about $7.3 million in restitution. Transocean Inc. and Transocean Ltd.: a $13.4 million criminal fine.

— GlobalSantaFe: about $3.7 million in restitution and a $2.1 million civil fine.

— Noble: about $5.6 million in restitution and a $2.6 million criminal fine.