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Dec. 10, 2010, 1:44 p.m. EST

EU Probes Cement Makers

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By Alessandro Torello

BRUSSELS—The European Commission said Friday it opened an antitrust probe into possible cartel activities by a number of cement manufacturers in Europe.

The commission suspects the companies of fixing prices for cement and other cement-based products, sharing out markets between them and restricting imports and exports, it said in a statement.

France's Lafarge SA, Switzerland-based Holcim /zigman2/quotes/200284171/delayed CH:HOLN +0.27% Ltd, Mexican cement giant Cemex and Germany's HeidelbergCement /zigman2/quotes/202418791/delayed DE:HEI +0.19% AG said they were among those being investigated.

Friday's action is the latest of a series of probes that European and national antitrust authorities have been carrying out against the cement sector in the past two decades. Europe's major cement makers were fined €248 million ($328 million) in 1994 for running a cement cartel, a fine later reduced to €140 million after an appeal.

The commission's probe was preceded two years ago and last year by unannounced raids at the companies' offices.

"The preliminary assessment has shown that the commission should pursue this investigation as a matter of priority," the commission, which has antitrust powers in the European Union, said in the statement.

HeidelbergCement said an internal investigation didn't show up any malpractice, while Holcim declined to comment on what was an "ongoing procedure."

Italy's Buzzi Unicem SpA, Italcementi SpA and its unit Ciments Francais, as well as German construction firm Dyckerhoff AG, also confirmed they are part of the probe. Cementos Portland Valderrivas SA, which is controlled by construction company Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas SA, is also among the companies investigated.

The commission can impose fines of up to 10% of a company's global revenue if it finds antitrust rules have been breached. It has no deadline to close the investigation, and the opening of the probe doesn't mean there is "conclusive proof" of misbehavior, it said.

The commission itself didn't name the companies involved but said they were active across Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain and the U.K.

Gilles Castonguay in Milan, David Pearson in Paris John Revill in Zurich contributed to this article.

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